Israeli policies in Gaza have proved counterproductive and are only fuelling more radicalism, according to the head of the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees there.
John Ging, director of operations for UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency), met Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Foreign Office officials in London on Monday on the way to Washington to brief officials of the Obama administration.
“We all want to address the issue of growing extremism and radicalism,” he said in an interview with the JC, “but the actions that are being pursued to achieve that are actually counterproductive and have been for some years. They’re creating more extremism, more radicalism, more violence.”
Mr Ging emerged into the public eye during Israel’s Gaza operation when he was outspoken about some of its actions. After two Palestinian boys died at a UN school, he remarked: “The question is, ‘Is this, and the killing of all innocent civilians in Gaza, a war crime?’” He also decried the use of heavy artillery and tank shells in built-up areas.
Now he argues for a legal framework, credible in the eyes of both Palestinians and Israelis, to examine the competing claims of breaches of international law.
“It’s not for people like me to pass judgment. It’s for people like me to present the information I have, but not to divert the debate, not to be emotive in how we do it. There must be a presumption of innocence.
“If a shell strikes a school and kills two children, those are the facts. Those facts merit a credible investigation which provides accountability for the parents of the children. If they get it, their confidence in the rule of law, and justice… is upheld. If they don’t, it plays into the hands of extremists who will tell them ‘there is no justice, therefore you must take up arms’.
“And equally so for those in Sderot and on the Israeli side, who are on the receiving end of the rockets. There has to be accountability, but through the rule of law.”
If he believes in avoiding “emotive” rhetoric and in “dispassionately” looking at the facts, how does he view the recent comments of the UN’s human rights rapporteur, Richard Falk, who pronounced Israel’s military campaign “a war crime of the greatest magnitude”?
Ducking a direct answer, he replies: “The acid test is for the accountability that is needed to be credible with the civil populations.”
Pressed on Falk, he changes tack: “Our relations with the Israeli authorities are very good. And I have the height of respect for my interlocutors on the Israeli side. I have been very clear throughout the conflict that those we were dealing with on the military side … have a sincere commitment to the principles of humanitarian law.”
The Irish-born lawyer and former army officer, who has served with the UN in Lebanon, Rwanda and Bosnia, took up his Gaza post in 2006, days after Hamas came to power.
Now in the aftermath of the latest conflict, he says: “The number one issue is the disconnect between the stated objective and what has actually happened. The objective is to destroy the infrastructure of terror and to end the rocket fire into Israel. The effect is that educational institutions, the infrastructure of the economy, the infrastructure of the future state [have] been destroyed, while things like the tunnels are still operating, and of course the rockets are still being fired.”
The American school in Gaza — which had previously been attacked by Palestinian extremists — was destroyed in the recent conflict.
“Why? Because they were firing rockets in the vicinity? But the vicinity is still there; they didn’t create a black hole where you can’t find rockets. But the school is a pile of rubble. Where are the 200 children of the elite of Gaza to go to school? How is that moving the process forward?”
Israel’s “siege” of Gaza has also been counterproductive, he argues. “You have a blanket sanction on the Gaza strip which has closed down the economy and has denied people freedom of movement… they are collective sanctions… that’s not acceptable and it’s not legal.”
As a result, businessmen who previously enjoyed economic links with Israel have seen their livelihoods ruined while instead opportunities were opened up for black-marketeers in the tunnels.
Gaza’s people, he insists, are in the main committed to a future of peace and tolerance. “The reality is that the people of Gaza are looking for nothing more than a peaceful existence, and the people of Sderot likewise.”
For the residents of Sderot “there has to be a satisfactory solution”, he says. “There’s no question about that; it’s years and years of terror. It’s not a matter of a scorecard. It’s a matter of understanding the fundamental issue of the terror that the rockets generate and addressing that effectively. But as we have seen over the last number of years, there’s no military solution to this. It’s a political solution and that’s why we are appealing for a redoubling of the effort in the political forums because otherwise we just have more of the same.”