UNRWA staff at ‘breaking point’ dealing with Gaza humanitarian crisis

Watch above: UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness broke down in tears while filming an Al Jazeera interview on July 30, after a UN school, sheltering thousands of displaced Palestinians, was shelled.

UN staff working Gaza are reaching a “breaking point” in dealing with the horrific and worsening humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

That was clear in an interview Chris Guiness, a spokesperson with the relief agency working on the front lines of to provide assistance and shelter, gave to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, following the deadly shelling of one of its schools where some 3,300 people were taking shelter.

Guiness broke down in tears when explaining how “the rights of Palestinians… are wholesale denied” in this conflict, which has seen at least 1,400 Palestinians killed — over 80 per cent of them civilians, according to Palestinian officials.

Story continues below advertisement

“My tears are completely irrelevant,” Guiness told Global News on Thursday. “They’re only useful if they focus attention on the tears shed in Gaza, by UNRWA staff and by civilians there because their suffering is immense.”

READ MORE: Israel vows to destroy Hamas tunnels in Gaza Strip

UNRWA — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East —has lost eight staff members amid Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, which aims in part to destroy Hamas’ network of tunnels and take out its arsenal of weapons.

UNRWA has 13,000 staff working in the Gaza Strip, providing medical and humanitarian aid and shelter to more than 200,000 Palestinians who have been displaced. The agency maintains 82 schools in the Gaza Strip, many of which have become shelters. More than 5,000 homes have been destroyed since Operation Protective Edge began on July 8.

The Jabaliya Elementary Girls School was hit three times Tuesday night, killing at least 15 people.

WATCH: A United Nations school, packed with hundreds of Palestinian families taking shelter. Stuart Greer reports.

UNRWA, in a statement, said it warned Israel 17 times the school was housing thousands of civilians.

Story continues below advertisement

It was the sixth time an UNRWA school had been hit, the agency said in the statement.

Israel said it’s investigating, maintaining Hamas is putting civilian lives at risk by firing artillery from populated areas and storing rockets in civilian facilities.

UNRWA has reported discovering rockets in three of its vacant schools, handing them over to “relevant” authorities. There were allegations in Israeli media that UNRWA staff handed the rockets back to Hamas —accusations Guiness previously called “utterly untrue and baseless” —but the whereabouts of the rockets after Palestinian authorities took control of the weapons, in the first instance was unknown.

READ MORE: UN relief agency says allegations it gave rockets to Hamas ‘baseless’

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tasked other agencies to come up with a plan to deal with such discoveries of weapons being placed in UN facilities —which UNRWA publicly condemned repeatedly.

The UN said Wednesday’s attack on the school was a violation of international law and the Obama administration has condemned the attack on the shelter as “indefensible.”

Guiness said Gazans are currently experiencing an “appalling denial of human dignity.”

READ MORE: How much will it cost and how long will it take to rebuild Gaza?

“The scenes of untold violence, particularly against children… It’s very, very hard to bear,” Guiness said in a phone interview from the UNRWA office in Jerusalem.

Story continues below advertisement

The U.N. humanitarian chief called Thursday for daily “humanitarian pauses” until a long-term cease-fire is reached between Israel and Hamas in order to deliver relief to hundreds of thousands in need in Gaza, rescue the injured and give civilians a reprieve from the war.

The death toll in the current crisis is now about the same as the number of people killed during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, the last time the Israeli Defense Force carried out a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, between Dec. 27. 2008 and Jan. 18, 2009.

“It’s unsustainable and unacceptable to have a situation where every couple of years… that six million Israeli civilians are terrorized by barrages of totally inaccurate rockets that fly out of Gaza and [just under] two million people are subjected in Gaza to the wholesale denial of human dignity that people have been subjected to in the last three to four weeks,” Guiness explained.
He added that once the back and forth fire stops, which he “earnestly pray[s] is immediately,” the underlying issue of these recurring conflicts need to be addressed.

READ MORE: Gaza analysis: Israel exit scenarios begin to take shape

Among those issues is the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, Guiness said. But he added that the Palestinian suffering goes beyond Gaza, including the “appalling” situation for refugees in the Yarmouk camp, in Syria —which is in the grips of a brutal civil war.

Story continues below advertisement

“There are many Gazas and many Yarmouks confronting Palestinians,” Guinees said. “It’s unfeasible that this place could be stable if there are five million refugees in it.”

With files from The Associated Press

Sponsored content