Last Thursday John Ging, head of UNRWA in Gaza, spoke to an audience at the Zikim kibbutz near Ashkelon about his organization’s goals in Gaza, as well as the difficulties they face achieving them. Speaking to over fifty Israeli citizens and a handful of internationals at the Zikim kibbutz near the city of Ashkelon, John Ging, head of The United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s efforts in Gaza, talked about gains his organizations has made in Gaza despite being stuck in the crossfire of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Ging, who was born in Ireland, recalled what it was like being in his home country during the troubles and subsequent peace process, but as Ging said, “There is no prescription for conflict.” Ging has witnessed the varieties of conflicts and their resolutions in Lebanon where he was stationed as an army officer for three years, Rwanda for two years, Bosnia for eight years, and has spent the last four years in Gaza.
The way to improve conditions in Gaza, in Ging’s opinion, is to create an education system which emphasizes human rights and social justice. He is responsible for providing education to 210,000 children, yet has not been able to build new schools for three years due to restrictions imposed by the Israeli government. This causes class sizes to swell to as many as fifty in a classroom and none of his teachers have had a summer break in four and a half years since close to a quarter of the students fail and are in remedial summer programs.
With holes from eighteen bullets fired by militants still visible in the side of his SUV after a failed assassination attempt, Ging is aware that his efforts are not welcomed by some of the local population. The recreational centers built by UNRWA were burned twice this year by militants. Furthermore, some of the militant groups in Gaza do not support an education system which acknowledges the state of Israel or teaches about the Holocaust.
The curriculum emphasizes the works of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. Teachers inform students about the responsibility of all humans to use critical thinking skills, respect the environment, and to take action when they see something they believe is unjust. Ging believes an education of this style is crucial as young Gazans will be exposed to a multitude of negative rhetoric and propaganda designed to make them hate Israel rather than create sustainable solutions to coexist peacefully.
Ging’s task of providing hope to Gazans is made increasingly difficult by the near 50% unemployment rate. While adults who have masters degrees and no job wait in lines to get flour, rice, lentils, sugar, and olive oil, others are making a fortune off of the black market goods smuggled through the tunnels.
Ging does not believe that the blockade, which was designed to punish Hamas, does not affect them as they are profiting from the smuggling which didn’t exist prior to the blockade. Instead of Hamas suffering for their actions, Ging stated, ‘The price of horrendous violence is paid by ordinary people.’
One of the most contested items banned by the Israeli government is concrete, which Israel will not allow since it can be used to create bunkers. Ging was dismissive of this notion given that cars and cows are transported through the tunnels, it is more than probable that concrete is making its way into Gaza. As a result of the concrete ban, some 60,000 homes cannot be repaired.
According to Ging, the economy is the main tool which can bring Gaza out of its plight, but it will take building trust with Israelis to return to a normal economic state in which Gaza can export goods rather than exclusively importing goods from Israeli companies. Such a state will not be possible until Gaza’s bleeding infrastructure can be ameliorated. The World Health Organization deemed 90% of Gaza’s water undrinkable, power is scarce, and 13 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage runs into the sea every day as a result of poorly functioning or defunct treatment plants which is not only a threat to Gaza but to Israel as well.
Ging finds it useless to take a hard stance on the issue without witnessing it firsthand, “Palestinians and Israelis cannot help their communities until they‘ve gone to the other side….It‘s not a contradiction to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. It‘s about being pro-humanity.”
While he is proud of the work he and his 11,700 staff members have done, Ging stressed that time was running out and that the international community needs to put more pressure on both side to catalyze the peace process, “If I were to be critical of anyone, it’d be the international community.” He went on to say how politicians on both sides of the conflict have spent too much time buying into and bickering about the rhetoric rather than rolling up their sleeves to see what opportunities they had in front of them.
After speaking for two hours without one sip of water, Ging took questions from the audience for an hour. Ging’s final remarks were a reminder to the audience as to what his real role as head of UNRWA in Gaza is, “We (UNRWA) don’t want to exist….We ask ourselves ‘how do we work ourselves out of a job?’”