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Interview: UN's Robert Piper says political actors losing sight of suffering in Gaza

July 11, 2017 6:48 P.M. (Updated: July 12, 2017 12:37 P.M.)
By: Chloe Benoist

JERUSALEM (Ma’an) -- On Tuesday, the United Nations issued a report raising the alarm over the ever-worsening humanitarian situation in the besieged Gaza Strip, a month after the Palestinian territory marked its ten-year anniversary under Israeli blockade.

The report, entitled “Gaza ten years later,” notably warned that Gaza’s aquifer would become unusable by the end of the year, in addition to ongoing energy and health crises, as more than half of Gaza’s two million residents suffer from food insecurity.

“It remains essential that the people of Gaza are enabled to live dignified, healthy and productive lives in peace and security and that the current downward spiral is reversed,” the report cautioned.

“Without such steps, Gaza will become more isolated and more desperate, the threat of a renewed, more devastating, escalation will increase, and the prospects for intra-Palestinian reconciliation will dwindle -- and thus so will the prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine.”

On the occasion of the report’s release, UN Coordinator for humanitarian aid and development activities in the occupied Palestinian territory Robert Piper sat down with Ma’an on Tuesday and discussed the ongoing crisis in Gaza, as well as the UN’s handling of tensions when covering international law violations in the occupied Palestinian territory. The interview, edited for clarity and brevity, can be read below.

What was the UN’s aim in issuing this report, five years after warning that Gaza could become unlivable by 2020?

First, whenever we attempt to share the story of Gaza, we’re constantly attacked from different corners for getting the sequence wrong, for oversimplifying, letting someone off the hook and so forth. Across the UN system, there’s this worry that year after year, we lose sight of the civilians caught in the drama that is Gaza today, and we mustn’t miss any opportunity to tell their story.

Secondly, it’s a ten-year mark, a tragic anniversary of at least three events: the violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas, the reinforcement of very tight closures -- a blockade effectively on Gaza as Hamas took over -- and the consequent division that followed between Gaza and the West Bank.

In the report, you mention that you visit Gaza twice a month. What do Gazans tell you about how they see the situation?

Gazans are just so resilient. They are proud, and unwilling in some ways to complain and show weakness, there is an element of incredible stoicism and resilience that is pretty breathtaking. But you also quickly get this sense of exhaustion among the average Gazans, who have been through so much, for so long, and feel that no one is really in their corner. They don’t have anything great to say about any leaders, frankly. I think they feel tremendously neglected.

And when you meet a subgroup of extraordinarily vulnerable people -- women with breast cancer, children who need dialysis machines -- you realize that while there might be a layer of people who somehow can cope, very soon you hit another layer of incredibly vulnerable people who are trapped in Gaza, are incredibly dependent on electricity, health care, (Israeli) permits to get to a hospital, and they are increasingly desperate.

Do you believe there is time to stave off an even worse humanitarian crisis, or have we already reached a point where Gaza is unlivable?

It is possible to reverse it, but we need to move fast, and we need first to put these people a bit higher up, if not at the top, of the agenda. At the moment, they are languishing way too far down at the bottom of the priority list, but there’s lots that can be done and it can be done quickly. The situation is not easy to solve because it has all of these different dimensions that all have to come together at the same time, but absolutely, we’re one hundred percent optimistic that it’s doable if there’s a willingness on the part of the key actors to make it happen.

Do you think this willingness exists today?

The fact that we had to write this report, and the fact that this report tells such a sad story of a de-development across virtually every possible indicator, I think answers that question. There isn’t the kind of interest that there should be, there isn’t the kind of commitment that we expect to see today.

The report states that it tried to “look past the polemic” when discussing the Gaza humanitarian crisis -- but why does the document only briefly bring up the PA’s recent decision to cut down electricity to Gaza, a decision you denounced in June?

We are really trying to draw attention to a ten-year story of structural decay across almost every single sector. There are no short-term fixes, so we made a conscious decision to not go too far into today’s crisis, because it’s overshadowed by a ten-year story. I really hope that the saga today around the Israeli electricity supply is just a footnote and hopefully resolved relatively quickly, but again, we have to be very clear: On a good day, Gaza gets 40 percent of its electricity needs. No 12-year-old kid remembers more than 12 hours of electricity in one day. That’s terrible, and we’re trying to bring attention to that story.

The report really highlights Hamas’ responsibility in the situation in Gaza and its violations of international law, but it is more ambiguously phrased when referring to Israeli violations, often referring to the blockade by the understated term “access and movement restrictions.” Is this part of the decision to “look past the polemic”?

I think you’ll find that the document unambiguously references to the blockade, and you’ll find condemnations of actions by Israel, of lack of accountability, of “collective punishment.” You’ll find some pretty harsh comments about Hamas and how they govern Gaza, but also you’ll find some analysis of missed opportunities by the Palestinian Authority and so forth. I think that you’ll find something for everyone in there.

If you want to be honest in trying to tell the story (in Gaza), you have to connect these three events -- the blockade, the Hamas takeover, the split in Palestinian governance. What we refused to do is to isolate any one of those factors and say “if only this didn’t happen, all would be glorious.” They are all an integral part in understanding the disaster that Gaza is today. I think a fair reading of the report would find that no one gets off scot-free and no one issue is singled out as the one defining cause.

To use one specific example, when the report talks about recurring conflict in the Gaza Strip and then urges “both sides” to respect “the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution” during wartime, how does the UN respond to criticisms saying that this kind of phrasing equates Palestinian and Israeli violations and erases one party’s more large-scale violations of such principles?

You know probably very well that during the 2014 hostilities, there were violations by both sides, and there was an independent Commission of Inquiry by the UN Human Rights Council that had fairly detailed findings and recommendations about violations on both sides. The UN has since called for accountability and seen almost none on both sides. At that point, we don’t get into questions of proportionality -- I think that when international law is violated, it’s violated, and so that statement stands. We don’t really have the space in that report -- or really the appetite -- to then go into more detail. The bottom line for us is that both sides have violated international law, and there hasn’t been enough accountability on either side for those violations, and I don’t think we need to go much further than that.

Do you think there is any reticence from UN bodies to be too critical of one specific party to the conflict -- Israel -- given the reaction to an ESCWA report and to the recent UNESCO resolution this year? Is that something you take into account?

We take into account how these reports are going to be received, but make no mistake: We can be unpopular with everybody at different points in the year. That’s the nature of our work, particularly in an environment in which we have what we call a protection operation. The fundamental objective of this report -- and it remains to be seen if it will succeed in doing that or not -- is to make the story of the impact of these measures on innocent civilians at the center of the narrative, instead of politics or security, and not allow this story to be hijacked by interested parties.

The data in this report -- the impact on the aquifer, the deteriorating health care services, the spiraling food insecurity, poverty and unemployment levels -- that data is not political data. It’s a story of human suffering that needs to be focused on, and it must not be instrumentalized by anybody, and we will defy anyone to do that.

You think these issues can be addressed by divorcing them from the political context?

Not divorced, but if you put the (humanitarian) interests of two million people first when looking at solutions, surely it will affect and color the political choices that you make. The degree to which you’re willing to compromise is in part surely a function of how much importance you attach to the level of suffering that you’re seeing in Gaza today.

What concrete actions are you hoping the international community will take following this report?

I think the international community needs to be there both in moments of crises as a relief actor, but it also needs to be there to support the longer term investments required. Gaza is in a sort of vicious cycle of crisis, reconstruction, crisis, reconstruction. We need major investment in infrastructure, so it’s a different kind of money from a different kind of investor than has been available to Gaza for the last decade, frankly. We need an international community with a higher risk tolerance than it has today, because this is a complicated, high-risk environment. A lot of investors, a lot of donors are nervous about putting big money into such an environment.

We also need an international community that puts pressure on the actors involved in a consistent and coordinated way. We can’t afford to have a fragmented international community reacting to the latest round of crisis, we need consistency from the international community, which is a very rare thing to see.

Do you feel that your work has been affected by the election of US President Donald Trump?

My work is not political, it’s humanitarian and developmental, so I don’t have so much exposure to that. To be honest, I think that a lot of the work that we do has been under intense pressure now for quite a few years. If we measure our work in terms of the number of demolitions in Area C, or the number of people being approved to obtain cancer treatment out of Gaza, it’s very discouraging, to be frank, not in the last six months alone, but in the last few years. So I think we have huge challenges ahead for all of us.
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