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Middle East: Israel Halts Operations To Allow Aid Shipments

A Palestinian carries a sack of flour received from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza January 7, 2009. Israel and Hamas said they were temporarily holding their fire in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to ease the flow of humanitarian aid and both sides said they were studying an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire.
A Palestinian carries a sack of flour received from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza January 7, 2009. Israel and Hamas said they were temporarily holding their fire in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to ease the flow of humanitarian aid and both sides said they were studying an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire. (Mohammed Salem - Reuters)

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Johan Eriksson
UNWRA Spokesperson
Wednesday, January 7, 2009; 2:00 PM

Israel briefly paused its military operations in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday and said it planned to do so for three hours each day to allow for deliveries of humanitarian aid, as the Israeli cabinet met to consider how to respond to an Egyptian proposal for a more lasting ceasefire.

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UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) spokesman Johan Eriksson was online from Jerusalem on Tuesday, Jan. 7, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss relief efforts and emergency care in the region.

A transcript follows.

Relief agencies have warned of rapidly worsening conditions in Gaza, with most residents lacking electricity and running water, as well as access to emergency medical care. About 625 Palestinians have died since the start of Israel's massive military campaign, with more than 2,900 injured, according to Palestinian health officials. The United Nations says 30 percent of those killed have been women and children.

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Rockville, Md.: Why are you in Jerusalem? Why are you not in Gaza City? Is Israel allowing any foreign journalists into Gaza? If not, why?

Johan Erickson: Our situation is not the same as with international journalists because international media are barred from entering Gaza by Israeli defense forces although there is an Israeli Supreme Court decision ordering the Israeli defense forces to allow international journalists into Gaza. All the pictures we see are taken by Palestinians who are employed by the international media outlets.

We are the U.N. and we also under "normal" situations, coordinate access for our staff into Gaza with the Israeli defense forces. But it is a matter of notification to them who is going in and the Israeli army is not preventing aid workers to go in but the security situation on the ground is so difficult and dangerous that the U.N. security officials do not recommend that the various UN agencies keep big numbers of international staff in Gaza at the moment.

For example, the reason why I am in Jerusalem this evening is because my boss in Gaza, the director of UNRWA operation, John Ging, doesn't want to put international staff at risk by having them moving around in the ground in Gaza right now.

UNRWA has almost 10,000 Palestinian staff inside Gaza who live there permanently and they are the teachers, the doctors, the nurses, the social workers, the administrators, the accountants, the plumbers, the builders, the truck drivers, etc., and the great majority of them in the past 12 days have not been able to go to work.

The main UNRWA compound in Gaza is virtually empty. Only 12 out of 18 health clinics throughout the Gaza Strip are open. Only five out of 10 food distribution centers are open.

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Fairfax, Va.: How is the new daily cease-fire working out? What happened today? Did fighting stop? Did supplies get in?

Johan Erickson: Our information is that the cease-fire agreement was respected by both sides. There was some sporadic fire during the first hour; we don't know from which side. The announced "humanitarian corridor" did not materialize, at least during this first day of trying to establish it because these three hours make no difference whatsoever on UNRWA's import of goods and fuel into Gaza.

It was, however, brief moment of relief for the civilian population because they could bury their dead; they could rush out to get food, water, etc.

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Wheaton, Md.: Sir, thanks for being here. I wonder -- food and medical supplies are lacking in Gaza, but somehow for all these months Hamas was able to bring in weapons -- why didn't they bring in food and medical supplies?

Johan Erickson: It's difficult for us at the UN to get precise data on how much and what kind of good have been coming in through the tunnels under the southern border between Gaza and Egypt. A general impression is that because of the tunnels, shops and supermarkets and open markets were slightly more equipped with goods than during the last severe closure of the Gaza Strip at the beginning of last year. But because of lack of cash among the population people could not store up and as a result at least 750,000 people in Gaza are dependent on UNRWA for food aid. In able to have a meal they need to be able to queue up at our food distribution centers.

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Washington, D.C.: How do we know that the aid will actually reach the needy Gazans? Most are afraid to leave their homes for fear of shellings, air strikes and white phosphorus. I am very skeptical that the IDF will restrain itself, especially after the UN school full of refugees was hit yesterday.

Johan Erickson: It is a big dilemma. We are not able to distribute food and medicine and water to all the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who desperately need it at this time. The situation has been so bad in the past 12 days that people have not known where to flee. That's why around 15,000 Gazans at the moment are seeking refuge in UN schools. Therefore, we demand that the warring parties respect the immunity of UN installations.

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Washington, D.C.: I remember reading that maybe a week ago that Cynthia McKinney was on a relief boat headed towards Gaza that ended up having a great deal of trouble delivering relief aid.

How often are situations like this happening where foreign aid is being denied to Gaza in a situation where relief is direly needed?

Johan Erickson: Since June 2007 Gaza has practically been under blockade. Every week only a fraction of the needed amount of goods and fuel have been allowed through the goods terminals on the border between Gaza and Israel. That's why 70 percent of Gazans at the moment don't have electricity or water, for instance. Everything is lacking.

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Newark, N.J.: According to the New York Times today, at least one Palestinian witness confirmed the IDF report that Hamas was firing from inside the UNRWA school that was hit by IDF fire. Why can't UNRWA officials in Gaza call on Hamas to stop using UNRWA facilities and the Palestinian population for cover during battle, instead of just calling for an "objective investigation"?

Johan Erickson: We can say categorically that at the moment of the shelling there were no militants inside the school compound.

We demand of both parties in this conflict to stay away from UN installations. When civilians are received into UNRWA schools our staff are checking every individual who is seeking refuge there.

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Paterson, N.J.: How do you ensure that the food and medical supplies you deliver actually reach the needy civilians and is not confiscated by Hamas for its own purposes?

Johan Erickson: We are aware of instances where deliveries of humanitarian aid into Gaza have been diverted by the local government. We have every time protested to the local authorities because of this. UNRWA's deliveries into Gaza have, however, never been touched. In order for registered refugees to obtain their food parcels they have to show a registration card at the food distribution center.

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Rockville, Md.: The Gaza Strip is very densely packed. Why does UNWRA insist on keeping those poor people in Gaza. Why not resettle them to one of the 22 other Arab countries in the middle east comprising 99+% of the land in the middle east? Refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars that came to my country, the US, are citizens here, why does UNWRA work to extend this tragedy by keeping these poor people locked up in refugee camps in-perpetuity?

Johan Erickson: Because they are locked inside Gaza. They are not allowed to leave the area. They cannot go into Israel and Egypt does not allow them to enter. UNRWA has a mandate given by the UN General Assembly to provide humanitarian relief to all registered Palestine refugees until there is a just and comprehensive political solution of the refugee problem.

In the other post countries, for instance, Syria and Lebanon, Palestine refugees are not given citizenship. They are barred from many professions and they are facing severe obstacles if they try to create a life outside the refugee camps. Therefore, it is not feasible to expect that Palestine refugees in Gaza and the West Bank would be able to settle in the neighboring countries.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes today's discussion. Thank you for joining us.

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