Friday, June 22, 2007


Gaza: Slaughter of Civilians; Destruction of Infrastructure

‘Dangerous and Chaotic’

The Gaza violence has forced the United Nations to suspend most of its relief operations for Palestinians trapped in the middle. How the fighting is affecting education and aid.

Fighting on the streets of Gaza, June 13, 2007.
Mahmud Hams / AFP-Getty Images

Fighting on the streets of Gaza, June 13, 2007.

Web Exclusive
By Kevin Peraino


Updated: 12:36 p.m. CT June 13, 2007

June 13, 2007 - As gun battles continue to roil the Gaza Strip this week, militants from Hamas are tightening their grip on power. The Islamists have already taken over several hospitals and a number of key Fatah security installations. In the meantime, more than 50 Gazans have been killed, dozens more wounded. Militiamen executed rivals by throwing them off the roofs of high-rises, and masked gunmen set up checkpoints throughout the territory. Even some aid workers are finding themselves caught in the cross-fire. Two Palestinian employees of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were shot to death on Wednesday, and the agency announced that it would temporarily suspend most of its Gaza operations. (UNRWA distributes food and offers health services to Gaza's 1 million refugees; some essential aid will continue.) As Hamas tightened its grip on power, NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino spoke with John Ging, UNRWA's director of operations in Gaza, about the continuing violence. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What's the situation like on the ground in Gaza?
John Ging:
Movement is highly restricted. It's very difficult to get around at the moment. We only move if it's essential. We're just having to exercise extreme caution. The fighting is really everywhere. There are lots of checkpoints and lots of obstacles to movement.

Ging: 'The great fear is that we will cross over to the point of no return'

Mohammed Abed / AFP-Getty Images

Ging: 'The great fear is that we will cross over to the point of no return'

How have your facilities been affected?

In some cases the fighting has spilled over into the food-distribution centers. They've been overrun with armed individuals. They've sought to take over some of our installations to gain the advantage of the high ground. It's very dangerous and chaotic at the moment.

What's the biggest danger of the current fighting?
Extremists have much more space to operate given the lawless state of affairs. There's a serious breakdown in law and order. Extremists and radical groups have a lot of space to operate.

How do you think the fighting will play out between Hamas and Fatah? It seems to be spiraling, getting more dangerous with each outbreak of fighting.
This has been our fear—that each time the violence flares, we cross more and more red lines. The great fear is that we will cross over to the point of no return. Of the past three outbreaks, each has been more ferocious than the last. Now they're fighting in hospital wards, individuals are being thrown from buildings. What's worrying all of us is that we can't keep going with these cycles without crossing a point of no return.

Conventional wisdom holds that Hamas seems to have the upper hand. Do you agree?
One can only see it as one sees the surface. Hamas has taken control of a number of security spaces. The wisdom on the ground is that both sides have a lot of resources. If both sides are intent on fighting to the end, it will take a very, very long time.

Back in March, armed militants attacked the convoy you were riding in. Did you ever discover who was responsible?
To date, nobody has been arrested; we honestly don't know. This is the problem. In broad daylight a U.N. car can be ambushed. Three months later nobody's been arrested.

Don't you feel a little taken advantage of? You're trying to help and you're being attacked.
The way people like me rationalize our circumstances is to look at our mission. I've gone to the morgue in Beit Hanun. I have looked at dismembered bodies of children that I will never forget. That's what motivates us to do our jobs. We have to continue to have the resolve to help those decent people. Many of those who have been killed are innocent children. They are civilized people living in difficult circumstances, but they have not become their environment.

How do you judge Israel's response to all this?
We just hope that everybody shows restraint. This is first and foremost the responsibility of the Palestinians. Israel has legitimate security concerns, but they have to find solutions without adding to or compounding the problem here. Israel, in our view, can significantly contribute to stability by finding a solution to the issues at the border crossings which allow the borders to function. In economic collapse, there's fertile ground for extremism. Peace is a dividend of economic wellbeing.

Are there other ways that the fighting has affected your operations?

We had to close a number of our operations centers yesterday, and then again today. Of 18 health centers we run in Gaza, seven are closed. Of five food-distribution centers, three are closed. [After Wednesday's shootings, UNRWA announced that it would temporarily suspend most other Gaza operations.]

What about schools?
The school year for us has ended, so that's not an issue. But we have a massive recreation initiative due to kick off this weekend, involving 200,000 children. This will now have to be postponed until the fighting ends. We were also due to run a remedial education program for 50,000 children, who were underperforming because of the disruptions last year. That's in jeopardy of being postponed.

What are you able to do in the current environment?

Our operation is focused of the delivery of the vitals. For many of the refugees, if they don't get our food, then they don't have food. We're doing our best to mitigate a complete collapse. People who are aid-dependent have no other sources. The moment we get an opportunity to reopen, we will. The need of the people is very great. There's nowhere else to turn. We are their last resort.

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc

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