Human Desperation and Environmental Destruction in Gaza

NEW YORK, New York, January 22, 2009 (ENS) – Senior United Nations officials today began to assess humanitarian needs in Gaza, getting a first-hand look a the destruction inflicted on the area’s 1.5 million residents and their environment during three weeks of Israeli military operations.

“The mission was struck by the scale and urgency of the needs of the people of Gaza, and the heavy and multi-faceted impact that this conflict has had on the civilian population,” according to a joint statement issued by John Holmes, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and Robert Serry, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

The UN Security Council is calling for the temporary ceasefire in Gaza declared by both sides on January 18 to become a durable truce with guarantees to prevent arms smuggling and to ensure that all border crossings are permanently reopened. But shelling from both sides continues intermittantly, according to local media reports.

Israel launched the 22 day offensive on December 27 with the stated aim of ending years of rocket fire from Hamas at southern Israeli towns. The fighting claimed over 1,300 lives in Gaza, 412 of them children, and wounded more than 5,450, 1,855 of them children, as well as causing widespread destruction and suffering.

A damaged warehouse on the grounds of the UN Relief and Works Agency for the Palestine Refugees in the Near East. (Photo by Eskinder Debebe courtesy UN)

At least 13 Israelis also died in the conflict.

The bombing and shelling caused extensive damage to civilian facilities throughout the Gaza Strip, and supplies of basic food and fuel, and the provision of electricity, water and sanitation services remain critical.

“We saw a lot of shocking destruction,” Holmes said in an interview with UN Radio, describing the scene at several sites in Gaza, including the still-smoldering ruins of the UN compound that was hit last week by Israeli forces.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has demanded a complete investigation by Israel into all attacks against UN facilities in Gaza, and that those responsible be held accountable for their actions.

“Questions of compensation will arise because there was obviously very significant damage,” said Holmes, to “UN installations, work and UN staff.”

During their mission, Holmes and Serry will meet with Israeli authorities to underscore that country’s role in facilitating humanitarian assistance for the people of Gaza, including the need for full, timely, and unrestricted access for all goods and humanitarian actors.

Gaza mother and child amidst destruction (Photo courtesy UNICEF)

They also are meeting with Palestinian Authority leaders to work out the best way to scale up humanitarian assistance in Gaza. Once the assessment is completed, the UN will launch a Flash Humanitarian Appeal for Gaza in early February.

“Children form the majority of the population of Gaza,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture. “No human being can watch this without being moved. No parent can witness this and not see their own child. This is tragic. This is unacceptable.”

The UN World Food Programme today began emergency distributions of vitamin A-fortified date bars and high-energy biscuits to thousands of displaced people in Gaza City. The distributions also include ready-to-eat meals for hospitals and milk for children. They are part of WFP’s recently launched Operation Lifeline Gaza.

WFP emphasized that all crossing points into Gaza must re-opened for the agency to be able to move 600 tons of food every day into the Gaza Strip as planned. To date, WFP shipments have been crossing only through Kerem Shalom, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, including shipments from Egypt.

The environmental destruction wrought by the Gaza conflict is widespread, according to Friends of the Earth Middle East.

From its three offices in Amman, Jordan; Bethlehem and Tel Aviv, Israel, the nonprofit organization is appealing to the UN Environmental Programme to send a team from its Post-Conflict Assessment Unit to Gaza and Israel.

Palestinian rescue workers carry a wounded prisoner past a fire in the central security headquarters and prison, the Saraya, in Gaza City after it was hit in an Israeli missile strike. December 28, 2008. (Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

The UNEP mission would undertake an independent assessment of the environmental impacts and make recommendations for reconstruction efforts.

The conflict has had “dangerous repercussions for the Gaza Strip’s already dilapidated water supply network and sewage,” the group said.

UN reports indicate that more than 500,000 Palestinians in Gaza remain without safe drinking water. Sewage collection systems and treatment facilities have ceased functioning, resulting in sewage in the streets.

The raw sewage overflow could reach surrounding communities and the Mediterranean Sea. “Sewage contamination will lead to long-term consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis including the outbreak of infectious diseases and the loss of important groundwater sources through pollution,” warns Friends of the Earth Middle East.

The group’s Palestinian Director Nader Al Khateeb and Israeli Director Gidon Bromberg said that documenting the consequences of war on the shared environment of Israel and Palestine highlights the loss to both nations and must be followed up by actions that will help avoid another round of violence and destruction.

“Reconstruction efforts, beyond urgent humanitarian assistance, should focus on working with communities on both sides of the border, Bromberg said. “The reconstruction effort should involve grassroots peace-building efforts so that the ceasefire has a better chance of survival and that infrastructure rebuilt will not again be destroyed by the next round of violence.”

From its headquarters in Switzerland, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said the environmental crisis unfolding in Gaza must be addressed without delay.

The Gaza Strip, one of the world’s most densely populated areas, is under tremendous environmental stress, and the current conflict is making a dire situation tragic, both for human beings and for nature, said the IUCN.

“What we are seeing in Gaza today is first and foremost a human tragedy,” said IUCN President Ashok Khosla. “The world is focusing, and rightfully so, on addressing the most pressing humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population. But we cannot ignore the longer term impacts of the conflict on the environment and on the civilian infrastructures, which are so essential for the well-being of the Palestinian population.”

“IUCN is an organization dedicated to the conservation of biodiversity, which means life, all life,” said IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre. “Gaza needs peace to address the many environmental problems threatening its future.”

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