Christopher Gunness is the public face of UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated to the plight of Palestinian refugees. He talked to MEMO about the innocent thousands who have been killed, and the hundreds of thousands whose rights are being disregarded; he noted the children growing up with nowhere safe to play and run nor any hopes for their future. He spoke about the horrors facing the people of Gaza, his UNRWA colleagues, and conveying some degree of humanity in the momentous support for Palestinians worldwide.
“There is a human displacement catastrophe unfolding in Gaza,” said Gunness quietly. “It gets worse with every minute that goes by.” UNRWA’s spokesperson has held this position for eight years. Based in Jerusalem, he has already witnessed three wars in Gaza within five years.
According to the Oxford-educated Gunness, the impact of the situation in Gaza has been “completely traumatising.” UNRWA estimates that there are over 70,000 deeply traumatised children, probably many more, across the Gaza Strip. “You can imagine, if you are just five years old… this will be the third upsurge of violence you have had to deal with in your short life,” he said. “You cannot underestimate the psychiatric impact all of this killing and destruction has had, particularly on children.”
At least 270,000 of the 1.8 million Palestinians in the densely-populated enclave are classed as internally displaced persons (IDPs); they are desperate and traumatised by Israel’s constant and disproportionate use of force against them and their neighbours. “We are fighting, against all odds, to bring water, food, mattresses, blankets and other urgently needed resources to civilians,” Gunness insisted. The people of Gaza go to families and friends, wherever they can, but Gunness is gravely concerned that the coping mechanism is reaching breaking point. “We face the prospect of having tens of thousands of people crammed on the streets of Gaza without accommodation, security, food, water, blankets, mattresses; and that’s a very alarming prospect indeed!” he told MEMO.
The supply of food and fresh water is a major issue. Such basic supplies are needed for the agency’s installations across the Gaza Strip housing displaced people. Hygiene and sanitation in the accommodation is another issue; “UNRWA is doing its best to provide hygiene kits,” said Gunness, “against all the odds.”
Incredibly, UNRWA buildings used to house displaced Palestinians, including schools, as well as government hospitals and local mosques, have been targeted for attack by the Israel Defence Forces. “Life is almost impossible,” lamented Gunness. “There is nowhere to run and now that UNRWA’s shelters are attacked there is nowhere safe to hide.”
On Tuesday morning, another 72-hour ceasefire was initiated; although predictably fragile, IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner assured the world that Israeli soldiers were “in the process of being pulled out from Gaza.” If attacked though, they would “respond”. As no ceasefire has lasted more than a day during the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, people walk around cautiously and for good reason; just 20 minutes into the ceasefire, the IDF claimed that there was “widespread fire” coming from Gaza. A Hamas-run news station reported that two houses had been hit by Israelis in Northern Gaza. An Israeli drone was still circling above Gaza City around the deadline for the ceasefire.
This is why Gunness continues to urge the Israeli government to adhere to the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the UN and to respect international humanitarian law, designed to regulate the conduct of hostilities. “We’ve had eleven of our staff members killed and have had to investigate,” he said. “You can’t deny that there is a violation of international law.” As Gaza’s schools and UN shelters are hit by Israel, the circumstances are testing the international response to the crisis. Gunness is confident that violations are taking place. “I think you have suspicion, if not absolute proof, that international humanitarian law is being violated.”
Indeed, halfway through this interview, a loud explosion in the background provided evidence of the constant uncertainty and precariousness of UNRWA’s work. Insisting on staying at their posts, UN staff in Gaza are shocked by their recent losses. Attacks on UNRWA staff and facilities compromise Chris Gunness’s number one concern, security. The agency has now taken up all of the issues and incidents, seven of them to-date that have taken place close to UNRWA compounds, with the Israeli authorities. “As appropriate, we’ve asked for investigations,” Gunness said. With massive support internationally, he hopes that the leverage of such investigations can remedy the current lax approach of the parties involved. “A lot of public advocacy has stirred up international indignation,” he pointed out, “and that speaks for itself.” This gives him hope of Israeli restraint, “and, of course, restraint by those groups who are abusing our facilities”, in the clashes taking place at UNRWA schools.
Last week, a video of Gunness breaking down after an interview went viral, waking a lot of people to the seriousness of the situation. “I find it hard and my heart bursts when I see the suffering of children,” explained Gunness, who prior to the interview had been exposed to some disturbing, harrowing pictures of children killed and wounded by Israeli bombs.
However, despite having his personal moment of grief broadcast all over the internet, Gunness was moved by the support he received, thanking him for showing some humanity in such circumstances. “There are situations where human suffering becomes so burdensome that tears become more eloquent than words.” He hopes that his tears will focus the world’s attention on Gaza and that the message will get through to the powers-that-be which have the ability to end the carnage and bring about a permanent peace agreement.