spokesperson for the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned what he called the "outrageous" and "unjustifiable" Israeli shelling of a U.N. shelter in Gaza that killed 20 Palestinian civilians on Wednesday. Many of the dead were children who were sleeping. The United Nations has not directly condemned Israel, but says all available evidence points to its responsibility for the bombing. It was the sixth time a U.N. shelter had been bombed since the Israeli offensive in Gaza began 24 days ago. The United Nations said it had given the coordinates of the shelter to the Israeli military 17 times prior to the attack. According to the United Nations, more than 240,000 Palestinians are now staying in U.N. shelters in Gaza. Another 200,000 Palestinians have been displaced and are staying with other families. We are joined by Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. "UNRWA has reached a breaking point," Gunness says. "Eight of our staff have been killed. Our facilities are overwhelmed. Because of the continued displacement ... we may soon find ourselves where there are tens of thousands of people in the streets of Gaza — no food, no water, no shelter, no safety, frankly, after we’ve found that Israeli artillery is capable of hitting our shelters. And we’re saying: enough is enough."
AMY GOODMAN: "Outrageous" and "unjustifiable." Those were the words used by the United Nations to condemn Israel after at least 20 Palestinian civilians died when a U.N. shelter was bombed in Gaza Wednesday. Many of the dead were children who were sleeping. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said all available evidence points to Israel being behind the attack. It was the sixth time a U.N. shelter had been bombed since the Israeli offensive in Gaza began 24 days ago. The U.N. said it had given the coordinates of the shelter to the Israeli military 17 times prior to the attack.
According to the United Nations, more than 240,000 Palestinians are now staying in U.N. shelters in Gaza. Another 200,000 Palestinians have been displaced and are staying with other families. Hours after the attack, Christopher Gunness, the spokesperson for the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, broke down during an interview with Al Jazeera.
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: The rights of Palestinians, even their children, are wholesale denied, and it’s appalling.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now is Christopher Gunness, the spokesperson for the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA. He’s joining us via Democracy Now! video stream from Jerusalem.
Chris, welcome back to Democracy Now!
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Thank you. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what took place yesterday?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, we saw huge displacement in Gaza. There are now, in UNRWA facilities, 86 of them, nearly a quarter of a million people. And don’t forget, these are people displaced because of the Israeli ground offensive, and according to international law, it’s the belligerent parties in a conflict which are responsible for the humanitarian consequences, particularly towards civilians. So, UNRWA has reached great breaking point. And we are at the point where eight of our staff have been killed. Our facilities are overwhelmed. Because of the continued displacement and the fact that Israel has dropped leaflets, etc., from the sky and sent text messages, possibly thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands more are going to be displaced. We may soon find ourselves where there are tens of thousands of people in the streets of Gaza—no food, no water, no shelter, no safety, frankly, after we’ve found that Israeli artillery is capable of hitting our safe shelters.
And we’re saying enough is enough. We cannot be expected to have an endless capacity to absorb the consequences of Israeli military decisions, and it is time that we acknowledge that we’ve moved beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone, and we have moved into the realm of political accountability and political action. Pierre Krahenbuhl, the Swiss national who is going to be briefing the Security Council from Gaza today—it promises to be a truly historic moment; it’s at 5:00 Gaza time and is available live-streaming through the U.N. website—is going to tell the Security Council that we have reached breaking point, and it’s up to others, with the political weight, to bring correct influence to bear on the parties. And we all know exactly which parties and which influences have to be brought to bear. It’s time for them to do so, to end this conflict, because the guns need to fall silent. Enough blood has been spilled. And that moment of ceasefire, of permanent ceasefire, will not come soon enough for the embattled people of Gaza—and, by the way, for the six million civilians in Israel who have been terrorized by these appalling barrages of rockets that have been flying out.
AMY GOODMAN: Chris Gunness, how does the U.N. know that it was Israel that attacked the U.N. shelter, the school that the U.N. is using to house thousands of refugees?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, Amy, first of all, the word "attack" is not a word that we’ve used, because that implies deliberate intentionality, and that’s not something we’re saying. We’re saying that an Israeli artillery shell struck the school, and there’s a big difference there. Intentionality is the difference. We know that because we did crater analysis, we did trajectory analysis, we analyzed the debris, including fragments that were found at the scene. And we are confident enough in our initial findings to have gone public and to have made a very strong condemnation of the serious violation of international law by Israeli forces. I think the very fact that a humanitarian organization is making such an accusation against one of the most powerful armies in the world, and certainly in the Middle East, I think says something about how certain of our facts we are. But, you know, let’s have a proper investigation. There must be accountability. There must be transparency and proper reporting. The truth will come out. And, you know, we hope that with truth, as is often the case, will come justice.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Mark Regev, the spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was responding to the bombing of the U.N. school in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
MARK REGEV: First of all, it’s not clear to us that it was Israeli fire, even Israeli errant fire, that hit that U.N. facility. What we do know is that terrorists, Hamas terrorists, were shooting at our forces, and there was a firefight, and they were shooting at us from the immediate vicinity of that U.N. school. Now, if our forces are in the field and being shot at, right, it’s only natural that they would return fire to save their own lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev also responded to the U.N.’s finding that it was in fact Israeli shells which hit the school.
MARK REGEV: First of all, we’ll be interested to hear what they’ll say, and we’ll cooperate in investigations, if need be, because we’ll be totally transparent. If it was our fault, if it was errant Israeli fire, then we will of course come clean. In the past, we have admitted when we’ve made mistakes. But let’s be clear. Here, the secretary-general of the United Nations has been very clear. He said when terrorists put weapons or use a U.N. facility for their military purposes, they are responsible, because they are endangering the lives of everyone who uses that facility. And that was clear today, that our forces were taking fire from terrorists in the immediate vicinity of that school, therefore it’s Hamas who has turned this area into a war zone, and they bear responsibility.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Israeli spokesperson, Mark Regev. Christopher Gunness of the United Nations, can you respond?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, here are some questions for Mr. Regev. Do you not think that the self-described most moral army in the world, if it was going to attack—I mean, he seems to be saying that there were terrorists there, so Israel deliberately attacked. I think that’s what I heard him say; I may be wrong. But if the most moral army in the world, as the Israeli army has called itself, feels that there’s going to be an attack in which people are going to be killed, women and children, children who slept at their parents’ side on the floor of a classroom in a U.N.-designated safe area, wouldn’t it be sensible to allow the principle of distinction to take hold and for combatants and noncombatants to be distinguished and for women and children civilians to be allowed to leave the combat zone? And what about the notion of proportionality, the fact that you’re attacking militants near an UNRWA compound, and the risk is that you kill women and children in large numbers? Isn’t that something which the rules of war dictate that the Israeli army should be cognizant of?
The idea that because a few militants were near an UNRWA school somehow justifies an artillery shell hitting that school and killing children sleeping by the sides of their parents seems to me, at any rate, as a citizen of the world, not necessarily an expert in international law, completely unconscionable. And I think the very fact that we have seen the quite proper revulsion of the world, given the carnage that we saw, not just in Jabaliya, but last Thursday in Beit Hanoun, I think says something about the way that these arguments are stacking up. It’s fine for Israeli spokespeople to say these things, but let us not forget, Amy, that our compound in January 2009 was struck by white phosphorus with a direct hit, where hundreds of people had taken refuge. And we heard similar apologies, protestations, you know, all sorts of fine words from Israeli spokespeople, including Mr. Regev, about how heartbroken they were and how terrible this all was. And here we are five years later with exactly the same parties hitting directly U.N. safe areas which are full of civilians. And, you know, one might also ask Mr. Regev about the pinpoint nature of these strikes, because if it is that nearly two-thirds of these civilians are being struck in pinpoint strikes, one seriously has to wonder about the high technology of the Israeli army and indeed the methodology behind their targeting techniques.
AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness, I want to thank you for being with us, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA, speaking to us from JerusalemThis is Democracy Now! When we come back, a leading voice of U.S. Jewry, Henry Siegman, part two of our conversation with the former head of the American Jewish Congress. Stay with us.