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A Debate on Israel’s Invasion of Gaza: UNRWA’s Christopher Gunness v. Israel Project’s Meagan Buren

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On the tenth day of Israel’s continued assault on the Gaza Strip and in spite of mounting international protests, Israeli ground troops pushed deeper into Gaza. The death toll has risen to 531 Palestinians and five Israelis. Nearly 2,500 Palestinians have been wounded since the bombing began last week. Forty-nine Israeli soldiers have been wounded since the ground invasion began Saturday. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On the tenth day of Israel’s continued assault on Gaza and in spite of mounting international protests, Israeli ground troops pushed deeper into Gaza. The death toll has risen to 531 Palestinians and five Israelis. Nearly 2,500 Palestinians have been wounded since the bombing began last week. Forty-nine Israeli soldiers have been wounded since the ground invasion began on Saturday.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak vowed Monday Israel will press on.

    EHUD BARAK: [translated] Hamas has so far sustained a very heavy blow from us. We have yet to achieve our objective, and therefore the operation continues. The fundamental objective of this operation is to have changed the reality of security for the south.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli ground troops have reportedly surrounded Gaza City and divided the Strip into two, cutting off internal supply lines. Amidst reports of house raids in some areas, air and naval raids have continued on other parts of the Gaza Strip. Among those killed were a family of seven from the Shati refugee camp and at least four Palestinian paramedics.

On the diplomatic front, the Security Council is meeting again today to discuss the crisis after Sunday’s emergency session did not produce a ceasefire resolution. On Saturday, the United States blocked a UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Egypt, meanwhile, is hosting meetings for a European-backed ceasefire today. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit emphasized the importance of Security Council action.

    AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: [translated] Why hasn’t the Security Council acted when it is necessary that it act? The issue is, I think, it will take some time. But the matter also requires increasing the pressure directed at reaching a Security Council resolution. It is not possible that the matter remains this way.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli officials claim the military operation is not targeting civilians and that there’s no humanitarian crisis. Israeli President Shimon Peres said Sunday, “There is no shortage of basic needs in Gaza.” He was interviewed on ABC’s This Week by George Stephanopoulos

    PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES: Even today, by the way, one of the passages is open, because there is no shortage of basic needs in Gaza. We take care that medical equipment and food and fuel will arrive to Gaza, even today.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told humanitarian organizations Sunday Israel wants to “ease the life of the population” during the military operation.

    TZIPI LIVNI: The military operation in the Gaza Strip, we made a clear distinction between the fight against terrorism and between the need to help the population in the way we opened the crossings more than ever in comparison to the past in order to breach all the gaps that were there in terms of humanitarian needs. In an understanding that the military operation is something that can be perceived or can affect the daily lives of the citizens, we want to work together with organizations in order to see out — to ease the life of the population while there is an ongoing operation against Hamas.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite Israeli statements, fears of a humanitarian crisis are growing. The United Nations Food Program has reportedly suspended operations in northern Gaza, where nearly 250,000 people are without electricity. Reports indicate nearly 70 percent of the one-and-a-half million residents of Gaza are now without water. Hospitals are struggling to cope with the rising casualties and running on fuel-powered generators, even as fuel supplies threaten to run out.

I’m joined now by Christopher Gunness, the spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA. He’s on the line with us from Gaza.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe the situation there, Christopher Gunness?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: It’s absolutely horrifying. The people of Gaza are terrorized. They’re traumatized. And they are trapped.

On the humanitarian front, a million people across the Strip are without electricity, because we’ve been unable to get fuel in, though we did get some fuel in today to the main power plant that’s been shut down since Sunday. At least a quarter of a million people, probably more, are without running water. Our food distribution centers have, all but two of them, managed to keep going, and all but five of our eighteen health clinics have opened.

But when I hear Israeli politicians — excuse me — say that there is no humanitarian crisis, there are plenty of supplies in Gaza, Israel’s obligations as an occupying power do not end when they dump a handful of trucks on the edges of the fence that they’ve built around Gaza. We have to have a humanitarian strategic breathing space around certain facilities so that we can get goods in at the sufficient quantities, namely the Nahal Oz crossing point for industrial-level fuel. And if we can’t get that in, then these one million people without electricity will continue to be without electricity. And we need to get in grain, wheat grain, at the main conveyor belt at the Karni crossing, an industrial-sized crossing. Without that, our food stocks will run out in the next forty-eight hours, and people, particularly those cut-off communities around the fighting in northern Gaza, face the serious threat of hunger.

There is a humanitarian crisis, and it ill-behooves Israeli politicians simply to say there is no shortage of anything in Gaza. There is a shortage of wheat, and there is a shortage of fuel, and that means that people are facing a humanitarian crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined in Washington, D.C. by Meagan Buren. She’s senior adviser to the Israel Project, which is a pro-Israel government group in Washington, D.C., also based in Jerusalem. Meagan Buren, when you hear Christopher Gunness’s description, it’s very different from what the Israeli leaders are saying.

MEAGAN BUREN: First, let me be clear that we’re a non-governmental organization. And I hear what he’s saying, and I think that there are very difficult situations on the ground in Gaza, without question. But you see that there are very difficult situations on the ground inside of Israel, as well. And where was this outcry of support when 9,000 rockets were being fired at Israeli civilians in kindergartens and living rooms and bedrooms? People have been sleeping in bomb shelters for years, living their lives in fifteen-second increments, wondering whether or not they’re going to have time to get to a bomb shelter in the next fifteen seconds when the siren goes off. When is it enough?

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness, your response to the situation in Israel?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: First of all, we at the United Nations condemn the rockets. And let me again condemn them. They are utterly condemnable. And my message is as much to the rocket launchers as to the Israeli army, which is that enough innocent women and children, dozens have been killed just within the last few days. And, of course, our hearts go out to those families in Sderot, who, as your contributor from Washington says, are being terrorized. Of course, that is absolutely condemnable.

However, let’s look at the proportionality here. Let me ask your contributor from Washington, how many have been killed in the last few days? 531, among them, women, children. Just last night, seven of our refugees, unconfirmed reports saying killed in their beds while they slept. Nine of our students killed in one air strike. This is not proportionate. And what is happening in Sderot, which is utterly condemnable, I don’t think justifies this level of disproportionality. Anyone looking at the facts, straightforward, on the ground, listens to what your contributor in Washington is saying and says, “Yes, of course it’s unforgivable. It’s condemnable.” But surely, you can also understand that this degree of killing of innocent women and children and babies is not justified.

AMY GOODMAN: Meagan Buren, your response?

MEAGAN BUREN: And let me also agree that I think the death of a Palestinian child is no less of a tragedy than the death of an Israeli child. But for over eight years now, we’ve been talking about rockets coming into Israel. Let’s talk about that word “proportionality” for a moment. What should Israel do? We’re talking about a democratic country that has a moral obligation, like any other country would, to defend its citizens. What would proportionality be every time Hamas fires a rocket discriminately targeting civilians? Israel should fire a rocket back? One rocket for one rocket back into civilian territories? That would be awful.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Can I ask you, when were you last in Sderot? When did you last go to Sderot and talk to people there?

MEAGAN BUREN: I mean, Israel tries very, very hard — and sometimes unsuccessfully, but tries very hard to avoid these civilian casualties. But Hamas —-

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: When were you last in Sderot?

MEAGAN BUREN: —- continues to put their rocket launchers and missile launchers and activities in densely populated areas within Gaza. What should Israel do? What would America do if, every day, rockets were coming over our border, sometimes hundreds of rockets a day, specifically targeting innocent civilians? What would any country do in response to that after years and years? And also, remember, Israel is not inside of Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s put that question to Christopher Gunness.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, let me say, first of all, that unlike your contributor, I suspect, in Washington, I spend a lot of time in Sderot. I go there all the time, and I speak to the residents of Sderot. And although at the moment there might be considerable support within Israel, in these frontline towns that take the barrage and are taking the barrage — by the way, which is intensified with this ground operation — they say, many of them say to me, “The one thing that my government has not tried is talking. We talked to the PLO, and look, we got Oslo.” OK, there are many imperfections, and Oslo wasn’t as implemented. But you know what? A lot of Israelis say the one thing that’s not been tried is talking. And you have to talk to your enemies.

If anyone thinks that the misery and the grief and the tragedy that’s being inflicted on the young generation, people seeing their grandparents and their children and their brothers and sisters killed in their droves, these are never going to be partners of peace. If anybody thinks that this is in the long-term interests of peace — it may, short term, stop some rockets, I grant you that — if anyone thinks that this is in the long-term interest of granting Israeli citizens dignity and security, they better go to Gaza and talk to people about the sorts of feelings that are being stirred up by this wholly disproportionate use of force. The arguments being contributed — being advanced by your contributor in Washington is pure short-termism. It feels vengeful, and it’s not in the interests of peace.

MEAGAN BUREN: I’m sorry, I disagree. I actually have visited Sderot within the past year, and our organization has an office in Sderot all the time, which has been targeted by rocket fire as well, directly across the street from the police station that houses the casings of these thousands and thousands of rockets that have been fired. And speaking with residents that I speak to in Sderot, they say, “Enough is enough. When am I allowed to take a shower that lasts longer than fifteen seconds?” —-

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: But please answer my question. Please.

MEAGAN BUREN: “What about my elderly mother who can’t take a shower, because she doesn’t think that she can get to the bomb shelter fast enough to be secure and safe?”

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: How is this in the longer-term interest of a just and durable peace?

MEAGAN BUREN: “Which child do I take out of the bed at night, because I only have fifteen seconds” -—

AMY GOODMAN: Meagan Buren —-

MEAGAN BUREN: —- “and I can’t get all three?”

AMY GOODMAN: — in the long term —-

MEAGAN BUREN: That’s what the people in Sderot are saying to me: “Enough is enough.”

AMY GOODMAN: In the long term, how do you see this ending? Christopher Gunness asking you, how do you see this leading -—

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: How do you see it contributing to peace — I’d like to know that —- durable, lasting, just peace?

MEAGAN BUREN: I think that the people that understand what’s going on on the ground here understand that Hamas is never going to negotiate with Israel.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: They have been, at these Cairo talks. They have been negotiating.

MEAGAN BUREN: And while Israel is defending itself in the south against Hamas, a terrorist organization -—


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s do one at a time. Just one second.

MEAGAN BUREN: — Europeans won’t speak. Israel is still negotiating with Fatah on the West Bank and working towards a two-state solution, where both sides can live in peace. Remember that Israel left all of Gaza three years ago in hopes of peace, in hopes of jumpstarting a [inaudible]. What did they get in return? Rockets. What needs to happen now is the rockets need to stop, and Hamas needs to understand that they can no longer fire these rockets.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness?

MEAGAN BUREN: And really, we will move towards a two-state solution with our partners in peace.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Can I just say —- I mean, I do hope I don’t sound disrespectful, but it is simply empirically incorrect to say that Israel has not been speaking to Hamas and Hamas has not been speaking to Israel. There have been talks in Cairo, which led to a ceasefire, which came into effect on the 19th of June this year, and there were five months of relative calm. Go and ask the people of Sderot, because I’ve been there and I’ve asked them. They were very pleased that there were talks, and they were very pleased that those talks led to some sort of peace for them.

What happened was, on the night of Barack Obama’s election victory, Israel went in to destroy some tunnels, which it had known about for some time. I’m not saying there hadn’t been rockets on the Hamas side, because there had been, but by and large, compared with the period before then, there had been relative calm. Militants were killed in that operation, and then there was a barrage of rockets. Now, I’m not saying one side broke the ceasefire or the other did. But the fact is that there was, in the five months following the 19th of June, a relative period of calm, in which the very people that you’re talking about in Sderot were very pleased that Israel spoke to Hamas. And that should have been built upon, because there were the glimmers of peace. And instead, all of that has been wrecked by this air bombardment and by the continuing rockets.

MEAGAN BUREN: I’m sure that the people of Sderot were pleased that there was calm. Who wouldn’t be pleased with six months of calm after having those types of rockets? But let’s be clear, this was not a true ceasefire [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re sorry, we’re having a little trouble with the sound going in and out from Washington. Meagan Buren?

MEAGAN BUREN: We need to move towards a real ceasefire, not just a small calm, but a real ceasefire, because what happened during that calm that you just spoke of, which was quite a reprieve for the citizens of Sderot, Hamas used that as an opportunity to rearm with even stronger and more weapons. And now what happens? We’re not just speaking of the people that live directly outside of Sderot — I mean, directly outside of Gaza, very close within three miles, seven miles of Gaza, we’re talking about major population centers of Israel that are now also under rocket fire. We’re talking about the entire neck of the entire south of the country, because their rockets, backed by Iran and funded by Iran, are going further and further into the country, targeting more and more innocent civilians. The calm was used to rearm.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: And let me say that we condemn —-

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: —- the Grad missiles that are striking further into Israel. But let me also say that the root of the rockets — and people in Gaza tell you this all the time — and, by the way, I also spend a lot of time in Gaza. They will tell you that the occupation is being resisted. That’s the reason for the rockets. Now, I condemn the rockets. That is a condemnable way to try and resist occupation.

But the fact is that although Israel did leave Gaza in 2005, it then exposed an occupied people for the first time in human history to the most stringent trade embargo in the history of trade relations. In international law, there’s the concept of effective control: if you control the airspace, the land and the sea borders of a place, you occupy it. And from the UN’s point of view, there is one occupied territory. So if there’s one Israeli soldier occupying the West Bank, then Gaza is also occupied. I’m afraid that is how international law works. Gaza has continued to be occupied. And until the underlying cause of this, the occupation, is addressed and the strangulation, which is part of that occupation, is addressed, I fear for the people of Sderot.

MEAGAN BUREN: I’m sorry, I just — I can’t accept the argument that rockets are justifiable because of occupation —-

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: I’m not justifying them. Please don’t put words in my mouth. I’m not justifying the rockets.

MEAGAN BUREN: First of all, I disagree that there’s an occupation. Again -—

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: I’m saying that people in Gaza will tell you that the rockets are a response to occupation, and it’s the occupation which the UN Security Council resolutions say should be addressed, which many in Gaza see as the cause of this.

MEAGAN BUREN: I’m sorry. Israel left all of Gaza three years ago in hopes of peace, like I’ve already stated. In hopes of peace, they pulled every soldier, every settler out of Gaza. Not a single Israeli, aside from the Israeli, Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped and taken over the border and has been in captivity, held by Hamas for years now — there is not a single Israeli left in Gaza up until a few days ago. And what happened? They got rockets in return.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: You know, there’s a very good Israeli human rights organization, which has written a report called “Disengaged Occupiers.”

MEAGAN BUREN: What did Israel do? First it tries peaceful means — first it tries peaceful means, economic diplomacy, in order to try and dissuade Hamas from firing rockets. But what happens? Continue rockets.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to wrap up this discussion. Last point I want to ask, about the blockade and the issue of the blockade, the effect of the blockade, and whether — Meagan Buren, Christopher Gunness, where you see this going? Christopher Gunness, Hamas has said they would end the — they are calling for a ceasefire if the blockade were ended.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, I fear that what we’re going to see is a continuation of the land offensive for quite some time. I fear that the blockade is unlikely to end. I fear that there will be further radicalization within Gaza, entirely playing into the hands of Hamas, who will be given a very fertile recruiting ground. There will be more terror for the people of Sderot, condemnably, and there will be more terror and the threat of military action for the poor, innocent women and children of Gaza who suffered quite enough. Talking and engagement, that’s the only way out of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Meagan Buren, on the issue of the blockade, the issue of what we’ve been hearing described by the United Nations and other human rights groups, the issue of, well, Sara Roy, the Harvard professor, asking how can keeping food and medicine from the people of Gaza protect the people of Israel? How can the impoverishment and suffering of Gaza’s children, more than half the population, benefit anyone? And that was actually written before the attack.

MEAGAN BUREN: As Mr. Gunness said, there are tons, thousands of tons, of food and supplies going in from Israel into Gaza. And that doesn’t mean that the situation in Gaza is easy right now. It’s certainly not an easy situation for the innocent civilians that are living in Gaza right now. But when will Hamas stop the rocket fire? When will the terrorism stop, so that both sides can live in peace?

AMY GOODMAN: Are you denying that there is a humanitarian crisis? Meagan Buren, are you denying there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

MEAGAN BUREN: I’m not in Gaza right now. And frankly, I find it hard to take Hamas at its word. And I have to say that Israel continues to send in thousands and thousands of tons of food and supplies —-

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Take the UN at its word. There is a humanitarian crisis. Take the UN -—

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness —-

MEAGAN BUREN: —- every single day.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness is not Hamas. He’s with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: And I’m saying there’s a humanitarian crisis. Please answer that.

MEAGAN BUREN: OK, well, Christopher Gunness is saying that there’s a humanitarian crisis. I’m saying it’s unfortunate that all of the food and supplies that are going in from Israel into Gaza, Hamas isn’t distributing to its people. Remember, there is another border with Gaza, with Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness, is that the case, that Hamas —- let me put that question to the person on the ground in Gaza. Is that the case? It’s Hamas that’s stopping the distribution of food and medicine?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: I have heard no reports of Hamas hoarding food, but I have to say that there is a war going on, and our workers are not getting out to everywhere where they normally get out to. Our food distributions are going on, and we’re saying we need more petrol, we need more fuel, and we need more grain. And if we don’t get that, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and a lot more people will suffer and be made more radical and even less likely to be partners in peace.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us -—

MEAGAN BUREN: And at the same time, the World Food Program is saying their warehouses are full —

AMY GOODMAN: Meagan Buren, thank you, senior adviser with the Israel Project, a nonprofit group in Washington and Jerusalem, and Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, joining us on the line from Gaza.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We go to break and then come back to look at UN action, and then we’ll go back on the ground to Gaza. Stay with us.

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