Interview: Karen Abu Zeid

IMEMC Exclusive interview with Karen Abu Zeid, director of UNRWA – the United Nations Refugee ans Works Agency in Gaza, about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

Q. Could you speak just briefly on the humanitarian situation currently in the Gaza strip?

 Yes, we are finding a very big problem since the electricity transformers were bombed, because people don’t have any electricity, and therefore don’t have any water. Most people in Gaza live in high rise buildings all expect having water and electricity into their homes. We are dealing with an urban life situation that doesn’t have any backup for these problems.

Q. How about the effects that happened especially yesterday most recently, in which civilians have been killed?

Well, the effect of that is on families of these people, on colleagues and friends. That’s something that gets lots of publicity which is one reason where we’re interested in focusing on the other problems here, which are very basic to every single person in the Gaza strip. We’ve also been looking on what happened in the kind of industrials area today and found that all of the offices and everything in them, for this private industrial zone have destroyed all the computers and all the backup systems. This is the back bone of the bit of economy that was left in the Gaza strip and there’s nothing left because it was all one by one destroyed by the actions of the Israeli defense forces who occupied that area.

Q. Do you have any information on the situation on the Rafah   border crossing?

Yes, so these are the people that are all ready inside the terminal according to our count 578 persons. Around 130 of them are people who have been returning from medical treatment and aren’t in wonderful shape and need to get back in. There are others who among our staff who would like to get back because they need to work, others don’t have their papers to go back into Israel. There are a few thousands UNRWA stands in Israel, we know that some our staff who are trying to get in who were on holiday or for some other treatment. So it’s pretty bad. We’re trying to work, some of our senior staff is stuck outside are working with the Egyptian Red Crescent and being able to provide some of the medicines and other things that are needed by the people stuck inside the terminal. So again another big problem.

Q. The Egyptians won’t let them get back into Egypt?

Some of them no, some of them didn’t have papers or were entering Egypt illegally, were working there without papers. So they’ve gotten into the terminal and now they can’t get back out. So they do have to stay there. The medical case is in a good enough state to move around, and I think that anybody whose inside are the hesitant to go back out, I’m afraid they’ll miss maybe an opening if the terminal opens for a couple of hours they might have a priority to come in.

Q. And I understand that seven people have died, do you anything about that?

Is it seven? I don’t know, I haven’t had latest information on that. I have last heard it was four. There were several of young people too. So it shows I think what the kinds of conditions are. It’s not a terminal that has, again, water and food, and so on, that are needed for people to live.

Q. Does UNRWA have a plan to rebuild or to help restore any of the services that have been destroyed in this current invasion?

If you mean the electricity and the water, no, because that’s not something you could do. We’re just delivering water with our one water tanker to some of the neighborhoods that don’t have any. These are bigger chumps than what UNRWA can do. These are things that governments have to do, or some of the other UN agencies. I mean everybody is trying working together to figure out what to do and how to do it and who can take some responsibility.

Q. Now, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi has suggested the possibility today that Palestinian authority could be dissolved because of the current crisis. If such a thing should happen, how do you think it would affect the delivery of services in the Gaza strip?

I don’t know really, I don’t know what would be the alternative. At least the ministry is trying to do something that they’re able to do, to move around and to have some resources to work. I’m not sure what change that would make, not my area.

Q. Has international aid been able to arrive?        

Well, Karni opened up again yesterday after several days. We were out of our protein sources and parts of it melt. But we did get 20 trucks in yesterday, so we do have those things. We were told it was opening today, but it wasn’t opened when we were there and should have opened an hour before we left. I’m hoping more things are coming in. We did see it delivered because it comes in on trucks. So at least there will be flour in the strip. People’s diets… I mean you can live on flour and oil.

Q. And how about fuel?  I understand that a lot of the hospitals are depending right now on generators that use diesel fuel.

We understand also, at least it – we were told by the Israelis in the meeting that the UN agencies had with them in last four days, there was sufficient fuel coming in. They had opened the crossing to the fuel, that’s good and it means that the people can run the generators. Generators are backup systems; they’re not something that you can run for days on end and months on end and 24 hours a day. Generators breakdown and so on. And you have pay for the fuel which is certainly not something that anybody has planned for.

Q. Do you know about any shortages of medicine?

Well, there are certain shortages. There are visitors to one private hospital that an owner uses for his patients, a surgical hospital and they tell us that they’re running out of infusions that are important. And now they have to be very careful of how many operations and what operations they do.

Q. And I understood that UNRWA received an additional number of people applying for aid from your agency. Do you have any information on that?

Yeah, that’s correct, what’s happening, there were 25 000 families, refugee families, that worked for the Palestinian authority who did not receive any aid from us for the past 5 or 6 years. They had no emergency aid because they had salaries. But now they have their jobs, but they don’t have any salaries. So they’ve begun to come forward to ask to be put on our food distribution list. We’ve made some arrangements for 20 000 of those families, we’ve put them in our increased emergency appeal for the next six months.

Q. And how many people do you deliver food aid to in regular basis?   
Well, now we are planning to distribute to over 700,000 persons. That’s the emergency ration. And we have nearly another 100,000 on our special hardship list as we called it. Well over 850,000 people are in the Gaza strip refugee camp are getting food from us.

Q. Is that throughout the Gaza strip or mainly in one section or another?

No, throughout I’m afraid.

Q. Does it seem that this Israeli siege and invasion will end any time soon?

We read in the newspapers that it’s not going to end until the soldier is returned and that rockets stop being fired out. So that doest look very good I’m afraid. It’s extremely depressing right now I must say.

Q. And people don’t seem to have a lot of hope that things will move towards the negotiating table?

No, I don’t even think that people are even talking about this. It’s still a long way away I’m afraid.

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