Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
The United States and the United Nations have condemned Israel after an airstrike killed 10 people near the entrance of a United Nations school sheltering Palestinian civilians. The school was reportedly being used as a shelter for about 3,000 people. It was the second attack on a U.N. school in less than a week, and the seventh over the course of Israel’s offensive in Gaza. The coordinates of the school were reportedly communicated to the Israel Defense Force no fewer than 33 times, the last time just an hour before the shelling. Shortly after Sunday’s attack, the State Department issued a statement saying: "The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon characterized the attack as "a moral outrage and a criminal act." We get an update from Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: "Disgraceful" and "appalling." Those were the words used by the United States and the United Nations after an Israeli airstrike killed 10 people near the entrance of a United Nations school sheltering Palestinian civilians. The school was reportedly being used as a shelter for about 3,000 people. It was the second attack on a U.N. school in less than a week and the seventh over the course of Israel’s assault. The coordinates of the school were reportedly communicated to the Israeli Defense Forces no fewer than 33 times, the last time just an hour before the shelling.
Shortly after Sunday’s attack, the State Department issued a statement saying, quote, "The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school," unquote. Shortly afterwards, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon characterized the attack as, quote, "a moral outrage and a criminal act." On Sunday, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory, James Rawley, warned that nowhere in Gaza remains safe.
JAMES RAWLEY: I have spoken to residents of Gaza that have moved from their homes, not once, not twice, but three times, and they ask me, "Mr. Rawley, you work for the U.N. Where can I go?" And I have to tell them, "I don’t have an answer. There’s no safe place in Gaza." So we’re seeing a real humanitarian disaster here. And let me just say, the impact on children is just absolutely appalling.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Jerusalem, where we’re joined by Christopher Gunness. He is the spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. It’s called UNRWA.
Chris Gunness, welcome back to Democracy Now!
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: My pleasure.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what you know about the attack on your shelter.
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, we know that at 10:45 yesterday morning, there was some kind of missile strike, Israeli missile strike, just adjacent to the front gate of one of our schools in Rafah where thousands, more than 3,000 people, were taking refuge. Now, don’t forget, these are people who were told—many of them were told by the Israeli army to leave their homes. What do they do? They walk through a battlefield, effectively, they turn up at a U.N.—assumed to be U.N. safe sanctuary, and then they get killed there. You have to draw your own conclusions.
But, you know, when I hear your introduction, your excellent introduction, talking about the reaction of the State Department, and when I hear your introduction and I hear what you say about the secretary-general, it’s clear that the outrage and indignation of the world is real. This is visceral, genuine shock and indignation at what has happened. And one hopes that the way that this can be channeled will be through a proper investigation. The way that that international indignation must be quelled is through the truth coming out. And that is why we again yesterday called for an investigation. That is why, no doubt, the State Department has backed our call for an investigation, because let’s focus this issue on where it should be focused: the victims. If you know anyone who has ever been the victim of this sort of violence, let me tell you that the road to recovery is long and hard. But the first baby step on that painful route is knowing the truth, and that is what we owe the victims and their families of this appalling incident. There is no greater denial of human dignity than to be denied a proper, full death which is not anonymous. Behind all of these statistics are people with dignity and destinies that must be respected.
AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness, an Israeli military spokesperson said on Sunday that the Israeli military was investigating the attack, the second to hit a school in less than a week. This is what he said.
LT. COL. PETER LERNER: The IDF does not target U.N. facilities. That has to be clear. We do not target U.N. facilities. Indeed, in the hours of this morning, the IDF targeted a group of terrorists on a motorcycle, at least two people that were adjacent to the school in high-speed. We struck them, and we are currently looking into the consequences of this strike. I can confirm that our target was taken out. Indeed, we are investigating the situation. We will get to the bottom of this. And once we do, we will make our conclusions public.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a spokesperson for the Israeli military. Christopher Gunness, your response?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, it’s one in a long, sadly long litany of such apologetic public utterances that we have heard from Israeli spokespeople. I have a long enough memory to go back, for instance, to January 2009, when there was a direct white phosphorus attack by the Israeli army on our main headquarters in Gaza City, and our warehouse there was burned to the ground. We had apology then. There have been other incidents since then when there have been apologies. But I ask you, in all—with genuine earnestness: Have you seen a full and frank and honest and open investigation, such that there have been criminal prosecutions, people actually being held responsible after those sorts of attacks? Because the next time you interview Mr. Lerner, Amy, I hope you will ask him when was the last time there was a prosecution and there was some kind of accountability and individuals being held responsibility for these attacks, because surely the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as my English grandmother might have said. So, let’s ask the IDF, if they are genuine in wanting the truth to come out, where this has happened in the past, and therefore where we can expect this will happen in the future, with these attacks that have taken place in the current fighting. I don’t have an answer to that question. I’m not saying he’s telling an untruth. I’m saying I don’t know what the answer to that question is.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Peter Lerner.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to your boss, to the UNRWA chief, Pierre Krahenbuhl, who briefed the U.N. Security Council from Gaza City, who warned Israel might have to take responsibility for Gaza’s refugees should more be displaced. This is what he said.
PIERRE KRAHENBUHL: I believe the population is facing a precipice, and appeal to the international community to take the steps necessary to address this extreme situation. Should further large-scale displacement indeed occur, the occupying power, according to international humanitarian law, will have to assume direct responsibility to assist these people.
AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness, can you talk more about what your boss said?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, essentially, he’s making a pragmatic point and a practical point, which is quite simply that UNRWA has reached the limits of its capacity to deal with the civilian consequences of Israeli and other military decisions. He’s making an international jurisprudential point, as well, which is that according to international law it’s the belligerent parties to a conflict who are responsible for the civilian consequences of their actions. So, they are responsible, for example, to allow civilians, women and children, according to the principle that they should be allowed to leave, the principle of distinction, so women and children can leave the battle zone. There are principles such as proportionality. One could go on. But the point is that the parties to the conflict are those who are responsible for the civilians. And we’ve done what we can. We’ve now—we pre-identified 92 schools for shelters. We’ve now reached 90. And some of those schools are in extremely dangerous areas, as we saw yesterday in Rafah, but we also saw, before that, in Jabaliya and Beit Hanoun, where there were terrible multiple deaths and injuries as a result of Israeli shelling. We have simply reached the limits of our capacity. And the time is—
AMY GOODMAN: How many Palestinian refugees are there?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: In our facilities, there are 270,000. That’s an average of just under 3,000 per facility. And you can imagine, these are schools which were built for the education of a thousand children coming in in the morning and leaving in the afternoon each day. They weren’t designed for 3,000 people-plus, in some cases, 24/7. They weren’t designed to provide sanitation, the hygiene, the food, the water, the mattresses, all of these things, the accommodation. They were never envisaged to be places where this could be provided. So, of course, UNRWA is overwhelmed by this. And don’t forget that—
AMY GOODMAN: Are you turning people away?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: No, absolutely not. And we will not. And, by the way, Amy, 11 of our staff, 11 of my colleagues, have been killed. Most aid organizations, in the States or elsewhere, would have pulled out by now. But no, there is an overwhelming human displacement catastrophe going on in Gaza, and there is no way that UNRWA will simply leave and allow civilians—women, children, the elderly, the sick, the dying—to fend for themselves.
But the point that my boss, Pierre Krahenbuhl, was making was that we are soon going to be in the situation where we don’t have room. There are some 475,000—and that’s a conservative estimation—people who have been displaced in Gaza. We will run the risk of people soon being stranded in the streets, because there simply is nowhere for them to go. And one of the alarming—and I think it’s going to become clear in the coming weeks—one of the more alarming aspects of this conflict is that whereas in 2008, 2009, a lot of public infrastructure was hit, so the industrial zone in the northeast of Gaza—bakeries, drinks factories, food production factories, these sorts of things were very badly hit; in fact, they were bulldozed in the last days of the war, many of them—this time around, I think we are going to discover, sadly, that tens of thousands of people’s homes have been leveled. And the fact is that many tens of thousands of those people in our facilities right now probably don’t have homes to go back to. And those lucky enough to have homes to go back to may have homes to go back to which are no longer on the water or electricity systems, because those, too, have been very, very badly damaged. So, there’s a homelessness crisis—call it a human displacement crisis, call it what you will—of uncalculated proportions. And that, when the guns fall silent, I fear, is going to be a huge problem.
It’s going to be a public health problem. You were asking Mohammed about that just now. There’s a public health catastrophe going on. You know, most of the medical facilities in Gaza are non-operational. Staff can’t get to their places of work. Eight thousand, we estimate, people have been injured. And in al-Shifa Hospital, the main hospital—it’s the largest hospital, actually, in the occupied Palestinian territory, which includes the West Bank—the largest hospital in Gaza in the Occupied Territories has people in the car park—the wounded, the sick, the injured—because they simply don’t have space. That, in anyone’s book, is a public health disaster, and it compounds the appalling human displacement crisis that’s already there. And I think it really is just a matter of time before we do see the outbreak of communicable diseases. Sorry, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly before we go, UNRWA has said—the U.N. Relief and Works Agency that’s responsible for the Palestinian refugees—that you contacted the Israeli military 33 times to tell them the coordinates of the particular shelter that just got struck. What does that mean, you contact them? Explain how that happens. You keep calling them and saying, "This is where this school is"?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: You pick up the phone. I mean, first of all, under the communities and immunities convention—the diplomatic immunities convention, rather, we are obliged to notify—to use language of the convention—the Israeli authorities of where all our facilities are. So, even before the crisis happened, they had the precise coordinates of all of our installations, by way of protecting them and making sure they don’t come into harm’s way. On top of that, when the fighting in times of conflict starts to encroach on our buildings, we phone them up, and we say,—literally pick up the phone and say, "Excuse me, but your firing is getting closer and closer. There are over 3,000 people in that school. Would you please not endanger their lives?" And in this case, it got closer, and, of course, you know, there was that missile adjacent to the gate. The last phone call to the Israeli army was an hour before that strike. In the Jabaliya case, we also made multiple phone calls the night before, and look what happened. You know, I mean, I can’t explain it. You ask what lies behind it. You really do have to phone up Peter Lerner again and put it to him that the U.N. had pointed out 33 times, including up to the hour beforehand, and ask them for an explanation. We simply don’t have one.
AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness, I want to thank you for being with us, spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA. He’s in Jerusalem. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
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