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U.N. Official In Gaza Discusses Aid Suspension

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency suspended its operations today in Gaza after a truck driver in a UN humanitarian convoy was killed by Israeli fire. The UN noted the increasing hostile actions against its premises and personnel. John Ging is UNRWA's director of operations in Gaza. And Mr. Ging, let's talk about this attack on the aid convoy. Was the Israeli military aware of that convoy and where it was going?

Mr. JOHN GING (Director of Operations, UNRWA, Gaza): That's the whole point. They were fully informed, and they had given the green light for it to proceed through their liaison office in real time. And that's not just the first event. These incidents is happening(ph), occurring at an alarming and repetitive rate over the last period of time. And we have been receiving assurance and reassurance after assurance, again, that they would not reoccur. Today, tragically, a contractor of ours lost his life because we took, at good faith, the green light that was given, and moments later, he's dead.

NORRIS: And it's absolutely clear to you that this fire was coming from Israeli soldiers, not from Hamas?

Mr. GING: Well, that's the information that I have. And all day today, nobody on the Israeli side has denied, in the liaison branch that we deal with, that the fire wasn't from their soldiers on the ground.

NORRIS: What explanation have you gotten from Israel about this attack?

Mr. GING: None, that's also part of the problem. The Red Cross has had the same experience today as well. And they too have suspended all staff movement until this matter is resolved.

NORRIS: You've described conditions in Gaza right now as hell on earth. What do you mean?

Mr. GING: Well, 750,000 people without water, (unintelligible) days and nights without sleep, incessant bombing, traumatized, nowhere safe, 670 dead, over 3,000 injured, a million people in Gaza already destitute and food aid dependent on hand outs and food from the U.N., not getting their food at the moment. The power plant has been closed down since 31st of December, no electricity for a million people. You know, the list goes on and on.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about the Israeli strike earlier this week that killed about 40 Palestinians at a UN run school and in nearby houses. Israel has said that gunmen were firing mortars from the school. I know you dispute that, but there are people from the area who've told reporters there were, in fact, Hamas fighters nearby. Isn't it likely that Hamas is using UN facilities for cover, using civilians as human shields?

Mr. GING: This is something that we need to have investigated, and that's why we've called for an independent investigation. What we need to have is a proper process of accountability, get the facts established and then hold accountable those who are responsible.

NORRIS: As the fighting goes on, though, doesn't this complicate your mission in areas as dense as Gaza City, where Hamas fighters are blending in with the civilian population?

Mr. GING: This is a challenge that we've always known about and are very alert to. We have good systems and procedures in place to vet the people as they come in. It's a shelter for civilians, not for militants, and everybody is fully aware of the consequences of any violations of that.

NORRIS: If Hamas fighters, given that they're not in the school, but if they are all around your facilities, doesn't that put your civilians in jeopardy?

Mr. GING: Yes, that's the problem here. The combat zone is actually a city. So wherever you're going to have the combat in Gaza, you're going to have civilians. And that's been our whole point. Conducting military operations in a built-up, densely populated city is going to result in lots of civilian casualties. This is why there has to be an imperative to go the political route rather than the military route to solve this conflict.

NORRIS: Mr. Ging, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. GING: Thanks a lot.

NORRIS: That's John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, speaking with us from Gaza City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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