A former Irish army captain, Ging is the director of operations for the United Nations Relief Works Agency in Gaza, overseeing a huge network of services for the three-quarters of Gazans exiled from the land that became Israel in 1948.
He was on the ground during Israel’s unprecedented 2008-2009 assault on the territory, taking to the airwaves to denounce attacks on UN installations and civilians. He helped put out the fire white phosphorus hit the central UN warehouse, burning sacks of food indented for Palestinians.
Ging is that rare public official who doesn’t do spin. Speaking with him, one gets the sense that his views are authentically his own. Over the years he has angered pro-Israel figures with his criticism of blockade. Recently he angered pro-Palestinian activists by publicly rejecting calls for boycotts against Israeli institutions.
He also understands the dilemma of using humanitarian aid to address an essentially political problem: the dispossession and denial of Palestinians’ rights.
“The denial of human rights, the injustice of decades of experience of Palestinians,” he told Ma’an, “is then what is at the core of the creation of all the other problems. So the humanitarian problem flows out of the denial of basic human rights to Palestine and Palestinians.”
“The first issue for Palestinians is the issue of justice. That has to be the top priority: the restoration of Palestinians’ fundamental human rights, all of them.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jared Malsin: What happened to the billions pledged by donor states to rebuild Gaza at Sharm El-Sheikh in March 2009?
John Ging: It’s just a pledge at the moment, a promise, from the countries who attended the conference that they would provide the money needed. But because there’s no access for the massive reconstruction program, the money has not come.
Access is the key. That has been identified as the key, since that time and prior to that time. Since 2007 with the imposition of the blockade, everything has revolved around a lack of access, so the physical circumstances, the humanitarian situation, the psychological circumstance of the people here is determined by the lack of access.
JM: You’re still facing problems, rebuilding schools and so on.
JG: Oh yes. There is in this adjustment [in June] approval for a limited number of UN-supervised projects and other internationally supervised projects. To put it into context, the numbers of schools that have been approved have been six for the coming period. The number that is needed by UNRWA is 100.
It’s the same in all the other areas. For us, seven percent of our project portfolio is approved for implementation over the next six to eight months. That means we have 93 percent not approved.
We want to welcome every positive development, but we want to keep it in its proper context, the context being the massive need. Because there’s a civilian population here, 1.5 million whose lives are being destroyed, whose daily life is unbearable because of a lack of access in the first instance.
JM: Do you have any reaction or analysis to the documents released by the Israeli organization Gisha about Israel’s policy of setting red lines for Palestinian consumption?
JG: Our position has been crystal clear. The blockade is illegal. It’s a contravention of international law. And on top of that it’s inhumane and counterproductive — counterproductive to the objectives of security, stability, and peace. So therefore it’s counterproductive not just to the interests of Palestinians, but it’s counterproductive to the interests of Israel.
JM: What needs to happen for that to change? Do the donor countries need to step in?
JG: In the first instance there has to be more realization of the urgency — internationally, politically and regionally, locally — the scale of the counterproductivity of this policy, and the long-term detrimental consequences that are being generated now need to be better understood.
There’s a lot of rhetoric out there that policymakers have to tackle. There are contradictory narratives. One side says one thing, the other side says completely the opposite. Both sides present evidence to try and back up their contention. And it becomes very confusing, frankly speaking, because the rhetoric is so compelling, and yet the truth is so simple.
The best way to get beyond the rhetoric is to actually physically come and see for yourself, first hand, and make your own personal calculation, your own personal judgment on what is the state of affairs, not just in terms of challenges but also in terms of opportunity.
JM: You speak with Israeli officials. What are you hearing from them?
JG: I speak with Israeli officials at all levels, from ministers through to the military, foreign ministry officials and so on, right down to the people who operate the crossing points. My experience — and it’s part of the tragedy of this conflict — is that when you talk to people, you normally get a humane and honest reaction from the people that you engage with. The policies are the problem, not, in my experience, the people who are engaged in the issues at the operational level. The people at the crossing points on a daily basis are working to get the supplies into Gaza, and they’re working very hard to do that.
But there’s this policy, and those that are making the policy are where the attention needs to focus. We need to draw out the best of people and their good nature, their humanity, but we need a fundamental change of policy for that to actually happen in a way that will have a meaningful and positive impact on the people here.
JM: The closure of Gaza has been going on in one form or another for almost 20 years. Placing it in that context, where are we? We’re at an absolutely low point, but we’re close to it?
JG: In the last couple of months we have seen some modest, positive change. And this is what we hope now will be the new direction, but we don’t want to get into a misrepresentation of the scale or impact of that change, because it’s very limited and modest, but we do believe that it points the way.
We’ve been calling for a change. A change has occurred and we need to build on it rapidly. That’s what the people of Gaza have been waiting for.
As you point out, access has been a problem for a long, long time. And it has been a very severe problem for the last couple of years, for the last four years in particular, since this very restrictive blockade was put in place, which has taken the whole dynamic in a negative direction starting with the collapse of the economy, which was struggling before that blockade was implemented, which was under severe restriction before that blockade was implemented, but which we were working to try and develop at that time but then it gets cut off completely.
JM: What long-term effects do you see coming out of the blockade?
JG: I see first and foremost the physical hardships. There’s so many facets and aspects to the detrimental effect. Obviously, first and foremost the physical environment here is very difficult for people on a daily basis, particularly when you see the infrastructure in a state of collapse, be it water, be it sanitation.
Then of course the economic collapse. It takes a long time to build up an economy, then in almost an instant it can be destroyed. So we’re going to have a long path to rebuild what we had in 2007 in terms of re-establishing markets and reactivating the industry here and so on.
When we look at the impact of the blockade on things like education, that’s very devastating. Kids don’t get a second chance at education. Their time is now. When you look at the overcrowding in the schools, the impact that all of these restrictions have had on the quality of education, then this is a generation that is missing their opportunity to achieve their academic potential, to achieve their development potential, and of course that is devastating for them, and it’s devastating for the future potential of Palestine.
When we look at the health of the population, the undernourishment of the children particularly, and the general level of poor nutrition of a population that are impoverished, 80 percent of whom are living on a food aid ration which is only an emergency ration, it doesn’t provide the full calorific intake that people need, and yet people have been surviving on this for years.
Equally, when we look at the psychosocial health of the population, the mental health of the population, particularly the children: All the mental health specialists are telling us that there is a very big problem here. Also a lot of depression and despair.
JM: You mentioned trauma, which brings us of course to the war two years ago. Where do things stand in terms of getting compensation from Israel for UN facilities damaged during the war?
JG: To be clear, UNRWA is not the address for compensation for the damage and destruction that occurred to Gaza. What we at UNRWA have been calling for is full accountability for all of the actions that took place during that conflict and particularly for the families who were so traumatized and grieved by the loss of family members, the injury to family members and also the loss of their houses and livelihoods and everything else.
We’ve called for an effective mechanism for accountability for all of the loss that was suffered, by the way, on both sides. As the UN we’re calling for accountability not just for the loss on the Palestinian side but were calling for accountability for the loss on the Israeli side.
JM: One thing that’s been in the news was the UN bringing in machine guns for your personal protection. Why now?
JG: We don’t comment on security. That’s always and consistently the position of the United Nations around the world. At the end of the day we have to deal with security realities, but we won’t comment on the details. You won’t find any comments from us on those press reports.
JM: During your visit last month to the United States and after you came under some criticism from the left for a comment you made about the role of boycotts in putting political pressure on Israel.
That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. We walk a straight line here. Sometimes we’re criticized by one side, other times we’re criticized by other sides.
I’m here for five years now trying to get access for the people of Gaza, to get a siege lifted. I am not going to turn around and advocate for the imposition of boycotts, blockades, sieges, on anybody else. That’s not what we do at the United Nations. We work to have an environment which is positive. And sieges, blockades, in our view, in my view, are counterproductive. They don’t achieve the objective that they state, and it’s ordinary, innocent people who end up paying the price.
So we’re here in Gaza. We want to see an opening of Gaza, the re-establishment of economic links into the West Bank, through Israel. We want to see the re-establishment of economic links with Israel. A hundred-thousand people from Gaza used to go to Israel every day to work. That was a positive experience for them and also for their Israeli neighbor. And this is what we’d like to see re-established.
So that’s my position, and that will continue to be my position. We have our differences of view and opinion but certainly I’m against sieges, boycotts, blockades. I’m for rule of law, liberty, freedom, respect for human rights.
JM: Certainly. I don’t think anyone is calling for a siege on Israel the way a siege is imposed on Gaza.
JM: I think what advocates of boycott are saying is that pressure should be put on Israeli institutions, through boycotts and divestment and sanctions. Are you saying you’re opposed to those measures as well? Boycotts of Israeli institutions?
JG: I am for freedom, liberty, rule of law, respect for human rights, for everybody. So I don’t find that one can argue both sides of this, in opposition. If other people want to have a different view and a different position, then that’s up to them, but as long as I’m working for the United Nations, this is my view. It’s not my view because I work for the United Nations, it happens to be my view, and it’s of course entirely consistent with the position of the United Nations. That’s why I’m so comfortable working within the United Nations framework, because that’s where I am coming from.
JM: When you were first asked that question, why not sidestep it? Why intervene in a political matter?
JG: I’m not intervening in anything. I could refuse to give you an interview. I could refuse to give everybody an interview, but I think I have a responsibility to be clear about why it is that we take the position that we take. So I’m here fighting for the liberation of one-and-a-half-million people from a siege, and I’m fighting for it from the perspective of international law, respect for human rights, and the counterproductivity of the effects of the blockade. All of these aspects for me are the key drivers of my position. I’m not going to be inconsistent in my position vis-à-vis any other sanctions regime; boycotts, divestment, or whatever.
I feel it is my obligation to speak the truth, however inconvenient it might be. That’s part of our role as United Nations officials.
JM: Turning back to the local situation, how are relations with the government here, with Hamas?
JG: The de facto government have in their term here respected UNRWA’s operations. That’s been our experience. They respect the integrity of our operations. They don’t interfere with our operations. They provide a secure environment in Gaza for the UNRWA operations and other UN operations. That has been the situation to date, and that’s the situation we expect will continue.
JM: What some people say about UNRWA is that it constitutes a parallel administration or government in Gaza.
JG: People say that, and it’s very important to correct that. Our mantra is ‘serving Palestine refugees’ — serving. We serve, we don’t administer; we don’t rule; we don’t govern. We’re not elected.
We serve the people. We serve the refugees. We listen to what their needs are. We listen very attentively to what their feedback is about how we serve them, and we do our very best every day to improve the quality of our services to them; in education, healthcare, humanitarian support, and so on. We don’t seek to dictate to them or have any authoritative relationship over those that we are here to serve.
JM: What about Hamas’ performance in terms of security, like the attack on the summer camp in May?
JG: That was a situation where armed masked people in the dark of night attacked one of our summer games locations, and again the de facto government here had to deal with that fact. We don’t have security forces here, and that becomes a problem for them, and thankfully the issue was dealt with in a way that didn’t interfere with the continuation of our program. Our program went ahead.
JM: Some people will say that Hamas officials allowed it to happen.
JG: Let’s also be clear. There are some officials in the Hamas movement who have been very vocal in their criticism of UNRWA. There’s obviously a view within the Hamas movement that is expressed in newspapers, in leaflets, in different public statements, that criticize UNRWA from time to time, that criticize our summer games and other parts of our program, but that has not influenced our work, and it has not impeded our work. There have been occasions when there have been attacks on our locations, and these are big challenges, but the de facto government has lived up to its responsibility to get the situation under control.
JM: Is the situation here a humanitarian crisis, a development crisis, or a political crisis?
JG: It’s all of those and more. It’s a psychological crisis for people who despair of their circumstance. When people get up in the morning here — no job, no money. The water, they can’t drink it. The sewage system doesn’t work. They despair of their circumstance. So psychologically they’re in crisis. What did they do wrong? This is what they ask themselves on a daily basis.
So, every aspect of human life here is in something of a crisis to a different degree, on who you are and what your circumstance is, depending. Most people, 80 percent of the population, are aid dependent. So for them it’s a crisis just to survive. Their kids come to them for money to buy this and that, and they can’t afford. So they look at their kids every day, and that’s a crisis. No parent wants to face that situation where they can’t provide for their children.
If we look at the 90 percent of the water, by World Health Organization evaluation, is undrinkable. That’s a crisis. That is a very big crisis. And the situation with water is becoming worse. The water table is becoming more and more polluted and, again, that’s a big crisis because, again, sustaining life here requires water.
As I say when you go through all the aspects of human life here and different aspects of people’s struggle to survive, every aspect of their life is a struggle.
JM: By treating the Palestinian question as a humanitarian issue first where, in fact, it’s an issue of the denial of political rights, it raises the issue of the alleged complicity of humanitarian organizations in occupation, in collective punishment.
JG: This is something we have to be acutely aware of, because it as a matter of sequencing. The first issue for Palestinians is the issue of justice. That has to be the top priority: the restoration of Palestinians fundamental human rights, all of them. And if you were to ask a Palestinian today, “Do you want food, medicine, or your human rights?” they would say “human rights.”
All of us who are involved in the international effort have to make sure that is the issue: the denial of human rights, the injustice of decades of experience of Palestinians, is then what is at the core of the creation of all the other problems. So the humanitarian problem flows out of the denial of basic human rights to Palestine and Palestinians. The economic circumstance, the humanitarian circumstance, the crisis in education, in health. It’s all flowing from the core issue of the injustice, the illegality of the situation of Palestinians.
I don’t subscribe to the argument that you should deal with the consequences if you don’t have a solution to the cause. That would be saying, well, if we can’t fix the problem in its totality then we don’t do anything, because again that would be inhumane.
But at the same time that keeping people alive is not the objective here. It’s providing people with an opportunity to live with all of their rights and entitlements and so on. We can’t be satisfied with just providing humanitarian assistance. We must provide humanitarian assistance in a framework that is seeking to achieve the objectives of justice, of the restoration of the rights of all Palestinians, upholding international law.
That’s why at UNRWA, for example, we give so much focus to education because it’s through education, it’s through the development of Palestinians in terms of their potential, their capacity, that you’re equipping them to be prepared, to be able to contribute to the achievement of their rights and their potential.