Ha'aretz : UNRWA head in Gaza: Israel's policy strengthens extremists

Saturday, November 15, 2008

UNRWA head in Gaza: Israel's policy strengthens extremists

By Amira Hass | November 16, 2008

GAZA - Israel's policies in the Gaza Strip are strengthening the stance of extremists there, the director of UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) in the coastal territory, John Ging, told Haaretz last week. By not easing restrictions at crossings into the Strip during the months of the cease-fire, Israel bolstered extremists' claims that the closures represent a political, rather than security-related move.

"The extremists claimed that the Israeli closure is not related to the rockets. We said that wasn't true, we said the illegal firing of Qassams must stop, that they have no justification," Ging said.

"But the stance has been strengthened in recent months that the closure is political and not security-related. There were several months of tahadiyeh [cease-fire], but no easing at the crossings. This failure to ease the crossings was political."

Ging said he is not interested in judging Israeli policy according to interpretations based on ulterior motives, but on public declarations that Israeli security must be maintained. "If the platform is security and the desire to break the cycle of violence, Israeli policy has destructive, counterproductive consequences," he said.

Ging's remarks came last Thursday morning, when Israel closed the Kerem Shalom crossing, which was expected to be opened after having been closed for eight days. Gas supplies were also expected to be renewed.

In the afternoon, however, Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the crossings to remain closed. European Union consuls were also prohibited from entering the Strip. According to the coordinator of Israeli government activities in the territories, Peter Lerner, "the policy today is to only allow entry when it is most critical."

Ging said he does not accept the security logic during the cease-fire of only allowing humanitarian aid to the Strip. "If what is allowed to enter is only humanitarian, the entire population here is brought to a situation in which it is dependent on food aid. Is that the goal? People want to work, to create and to be rewarded for their labor, not to stand in line to receive charity," he said.

Since 1948, UNRWA, the oldest and most established aid institution in the Strip, has served the vast majority of the territory's residents, some 70 percent of whom are refugees.

In recent years, some of its aid and development programs have included people who are not refugees. Ging, who has lived and worked in the Strip for three years, has become well acquainted with residents' feelings in the community. His experience tells him that a state of dependence and poverty leads to deep frustration and desperation.

"We are not talking about how to keep people alive, but about quality of life, not only physically and materially. This way, the people's mindset and emotional state are liable to be harmed," he said.

Ging said he continues to be surprised by how people cling to their humanity, even having "lived so long in uncivilized conditions," and continue to hope their children develop and grow in better conditions.

Since the cease-fire went into place this summer, Ging said, fewer supplies have passed through the crossing than did in the beginning of 2006, when the western Negev suffered incessant Qassam rocket fire.

"Why? There is no need to explain the security challenges here. We are always told that we must ensure security arrangements, and we accepted that," he said. "But no one has explained to me the security reason behind the closure of every crossing. The crossings have tremendously sophisticated security devices. No one can pass with an explosives belt or weapon without being detected."

"Explain to me why people who present no security threat are not authorized to work in Israel as in the past. I ask the Israelis, why don't you allow the entry of cement, even during the cease-fire, so we can build new schools and reduce the crowdedness in classrooms?"

The Erez and Rafah crossings are open, Ging noted, but only for certain individuals such as the ill, business people and politicians. Senior Hamas officials may leave the Strip through the Rafah crossing, and individuals linked to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah may leave through Erez.

"One illegal action does not justify another. Where else is the UN under embargo? Where else is food aid subordinated to such severe restrictions?" Ging asked.

"Why close it for certain people and open it for others? That's why so many people call it collective punishment. It's not only illegal and inhuman, but also ineffective. It only empowers the extremists."

The policy of extended siege has proven itself to be ineffective, Ging said, adding that international observers have called for a new approach. In his view, to improve the situation, Israel should take a more positive approach and open all the crossings, ensuring freedom of movement to all people.

"If indeed the goal is the stated one: to achieve security and stability to lay the foundation for peaceful relations," Ging said.