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Special Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Gaza

Elizabeth Hopkins, Director for Asia and the Near East, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Howard Sumka, USAID Mission Director to the West Bank and Gaza
Via teleconference
Washington, DC and Tel Aviv
January 9, 2009

MR. DUGUID: Good afternoon, everyone. We have a special briefing on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. With us from Tel Aviv is Howard Sumka, who is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Mission Director to the West Bank and Gaza. With us here, we have Elizabeth Hopkins, who is from our own RPM[1] Bureau. And we will begin with a statement, or opening remarks I should say, by Mr. Sumka.

I would like to also highlight for you comments that Secretary Rice made this morning when asked about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. And she said that we are continuing to pass to the Israelis information about what we’re doing on the humanitarian situation on the ground, and try to support in any way the efforts that we can through the UNRWA and other NGOs who are working there.

With that, Mr. Sumka, I trust you can hear me.

MR. SUMKA: Yes, I hear you fine, Gordon.

MR. DUGUID: Good. After Mr. Sumka’s opening remarks, we’ll go directly to questions. As he can’t see you, would you please, as you ask your question, identify yourself so he knows that – who he’s speaking with.

Mr. Sumka, please, go ahead.

MR. SUMKA: Okay, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk a little bit about what we’re doing. The USAID mission, starting almost two weeks ago now after the hostilities began in Gaza, basically reoriented its efforts to humanitarian assistance for the Gazans. We immediately began working through one of our contractors to procure humanitarian goods, non-food items as we call them, that were essential. The first purchase we made was medical equipment, probably about $80,000 worth. And of that amount, about $15,000 was, within a day or so, delivered to the Patient’s Friends Benevolent Society, one of the organizations we work with in both the West Bank and Gaza.

We then turned to other procurement, identified plastic sheeting for windows and doors that had been blown out as a very high priority. We purchased immediately about 26,000 kilograms of plastic sheeting. And it, along with all the other commodities we have available to us, with one exception, which I’ll talk about in a second, is in the warehouse that UNRWA manages in east Jerusalem.

Basically, the supply lines into Gaza have been slow. We are relying exclusively on UNRWA to be our shipping vehicle from east Jerusalem, from where we’re purchasing things, to the crossings into Gaza and into the distribution points in Gaza. As you know, the number of trucks that have been able to get across the Kerem Shalom crossing has been not as high as we would have liked. There have been days when it’s been exceptionally low. UNRWA has been queuing up its commodities in terms of the priorities that they’ve identified for what needs to get to the people first. And we are procuring stuff, putting it in the UNRWA warehouse for the moment, and hoping that these bottlenecks will open up very quickly.

We have signed grant agreements with six nongovernmental organizations that we’ve worked with before in both the West Bank and Gaza. But in particular, these six organizations have presence on the ground in Gaza, have a capacity to distribute commodities to people, and will be working with us both to procure and distribute. And so the mechanism will be that they will procure, the commodities will be turned over to UNRWA, they will take them into Gaza. And once they’re in Gaza, the participating NGO will do the distributions for us.

We have awarded $1.75 million in six grant agreements. This is in addition to the procurement I mentioned before of medical supplies, some of which have gone in, and in addition to about $250,000 worth of the plastic sheeting that’s waiting to go in. On top of that, using OFDA as our supply mechanism, the Office of Federal – Foreign Disaster Assistance, we are procuring a total of 40,000 blankets which we expect to have in the country by the beginning of next week and we will distribute as soon as the supply lines are open. We have had that identified as a very high priority, both that and mattresses, in particular, for people who are in the shelters.

And finally, for our ongoing programs with the World Food Program, we have delivered since the hostilities began about 1.6 metric tons of food that was funded by USAID, about $1.5 million worth of food. And those foods are already in Gaza; much of it has been distributed. Some of the distribution within Gaza has been delayed because of the security situation. But through the World Food Program warehouses and our – the NGO that works with us to distribute it, we’ve gotten much of that food out to the people.

We are hoping that the supply condition – that the security conditions improve enough so that the distribution can move more quickly. At the moment, as I said, our commodities are going into the UNRWA warehouse, but we’ve made a conscious decision to keep on procuring, so that once the bottleneck are opened up, we will have an adequate supply to begin rapid distribution of the commodities that the people in Gaza need so desperately.

I’d be happy to answer any questions that anyone has.

MR. DUGUID: Thank – excuse me. Thank you, Howard. The questions, please, also direct to either Elizabeth or to Howard as you identify yourself. The first question, please, Elise.

QUESTION: I guess this is for both of you. Thank you for taking the time to do this. It’s Elise Labott with CNN. A couple of things. If you could talk about the kind of consequences of the aid not getting through. USAID officials are telling us that about three-quarters of Palestinians in Gaza right now are in need of food assistance, and not only that, but the fact that the vaccination programs have stopped as a result of the conflict, and the fact that you have these dire living conditions, that the entire territory of Gaza is facing widespread disease. Could you address that?

And then also, if you say you’re relying solely on UNRWA for your supply lines into Gaza, could you talk about the fact there have been several charges of Israeli forces firing on UN trucks? I know the aid was suspended for some time and has just very recently been reinstated after they got assurances from Israel that it wouldn’t happen again. But there are serious charges from not only UNRWA, but ICRC, about firing upon aid workers; about the fact that the humanitarian situation, although some supplies are getting in, is not really being adhered to; dead are being left in the streets, wounded are being kind of left among the dead. If you can just talk in general terms about your discussions with the Israelis about taking more care for the injured, wounded, and aid workers. Thank you.

MR. SUMKA: Okay. Well, the consequences of the aid not getting to people, I think, are fairly obvious. People who don’t have food are hungry. People who don’t get vaccinations get diseases. That’s quite clear. So that’s why we’re putting all the effort we can into procuring and to making sure we’re ready to distribute commodities as soon as the supply lines open.

I was – with regard to your second question, the reason we’re relying on UNRWA is because they have the capacity and the experienced people and the supply and the assets on the ground to actually deliver the commodities into Gaza. We were concerned, for sure, when the incident yesterday that resulted in the killing of one of the Palestinian workers at the Erez crossing, that combined with some other incidents that have affected UNRWA facilities, led UNRWA to put its operations in suspension.

I was on the phone with the head of UNRWA just late this afternoon while they were still in discussions with the Government of Israel. I actually had not heard the news that they had agreed to resume their work, and I’m actually quite happy to hear that.

We’ve been working with the Government of Israel through the humanitarian operations cell that has been set up by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in COGAT, which is the civil administration for the West Bank and Gaza. And that operation basically consists of representatives from international organizations and the Government of Israel, the Ministry of Defense, to try to coordinate sufficiently well so that the locations of where the military activity is taking place and the movement of goods and people on the humanitarian side are known to both sides, can be coordinated, and incidents such as the ones we’ve had will not happen.

We are in continuous discussion with the Government of Israel about the capacity of the Erez crossing and the Kerem Shalom crossing for getting people and goods out of Gaza, or goods into Gaza, people out of Gaza. And we are working as hard as we can with them to make sure that these flow smoothly.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you. Elizabeth, anything to add?

MS. HOPKINS: Well, actually, I just wanted to make sure people understood for the sake of this briefing, my bureau, Population, Refugees, and Migration, is responsible for supporting the funding for UNRWA, and it was out in a media note earlier, but I’ll just reiterate it. On December 30th, we were able to announce an $85 million contribution towards the 2009 appeal from UNRWA, of which $25 million will go directly to West Bank/Gaza, $5 million of that directly to the flash appeal that UNRWA issued in response to this crisis.

So with that kind of contribution, of course we’re concerned with UNRWA having access and safe access into the Gaza Strip. We would like to see some more real-time coordination, but we feel that there’s – and we strongly support this – the coordination cell. But clearly, we’d like to see the operation run more smoothly.

QUESTION: Can I just quickly follow up? I mean, in – on UNRWA specifically, I mean, there’s been a lot of tension between Israel and UNRWA for years. I mean, Israel has always kind of suspected UNRWA of working with Hamas, and I mean, the fact that your money is going to UNRWA – I mean, do you think some kind of more political discussions or negotiations or something needs to be done so that UNRWA can have the kind of unimpeded access that you’re – that you obviously feel it needs if you’re giving your money to them? I mean, this has been a longstanding problem that seems to have come to a head during this crisis.

MS. HOPKINS: Yeah, well, we’re – our bureau is primarily concerned with the humanitarian element of it. UNRWA is clearly the large partner in that. And I would refer you to – the policy questions to the policy folks.

MR. DUGUID: Okay. Next question, Kirit, please.

QUESTION: For all the aid that’s arriving to the – in Gaza, and I understand that it’s going – most of it through UNRWA, can you say whether the recipients will know that it came from the United States? Are there flags on these things, just, you know, speaking – generally speaking?

MS. HOPKINS: PRM does not necessarily require that. I’ll leave AID to answer.

MR. DUGUID: Yes. Howard, would you like to answer that, please?

MR. SUMKA: Yeah, I’d be happy to. We – the first shipment we released last week, the medical supplies, was in clearly marked USAID boxes. We have some nice pictures of people unloading boxes. To be perfectly honest with you, though, we have received word from some of our NGOs that branded supplies – USAID-branded supplies – might not be so welcome. And so, for example, the blankets which we are bringing in through OFDA will, in fact, not be branded, just to make sure we don’t have any security issues.

MR. DUGUID: Next question, Joel.

QUESTION: Joel Wishengrad, World Media Reports, WMR News. The situation on the ground, which I guess is considered dire – Israeli forces obviously are worried about booby traps and IEDs possibly hidden in the roadways as well as sniper fire. Have – we won’t talk to Hamas, obviously, as the U.S.A., but is the PA Authority attempting to work with them and the Egyptians through the Mubarak government?

MR. DUGUID: I think, Joel, that that’s probably a question for a different briefing other than specifically on the aid question. If you’d like, I’ll try and take your question for later then – later in the afternoon. Thanks.

Arshad, please.

QUESTION: Arshad Mohammed of Reuters. Forgive if I missed this, but could you give us an estimate of how much of the U.S.-funded assistance that has been delivered to Gaza has actually been, to your knowledge, distributed to people on the ground? And secondly, could you give us an estimate of – given the supply line difficulties that UNRWA has experienced, could you give us a sense of, you know, what proportion of the aid that you would have wished to deliver to Gaza has actually been able to get through?

MR. DUGUID: I believe that’s directed to Howard and --


MR. SUMKA: Okay, yeah. The – all of the commodities that have gotten into Gaza, or virtually all of them, have been distributed. That includes about $1.6 million of food and the $15,000 of medical supplies and equipment. There’s another, you know, give or take, $3 million of commodities that we have either purchased or are in the process of purchasing, and expect to have on hand within the next four or five days at the most. And so far, none of that has gone into Gaza because of the crimps in the supply chain. Most of that is in the warehouse that UNRWA has in east Jerusalem.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you. Next question, Kirit, please.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Kirit Radia with ABC News again. Just if you could speak to the scope of the humanitarian crisis that you’re seeing there – more broadly, if you could speak to that, and then whether that seems to indicate any sort of indication that there was a disproportionate response on the Israeli part?

MR. SUMKA: On the issue of the disproportionate response, I think you need to ask someone else that question. It’s for the policy people.

QUESTION: But based on the scope of the humanitarian crisis, I mean --

MR. SUMKA: But on the scope of the crisis, I have to say that most of what I know about the scope is what you also know from the reports you’re getting. Now, we have a number of people on the ground who are giving us first-person reports about what they’re seeing and what they and their families are suffering through. But we don’t have any USAID employees, with the exception of one local Gazan, actually able to be in Gaza. And so the rest of us are receiving information through the same channels that everyone else is. We hear reports from the UN, from both UNRWA and OCHA. We get some reports from World Food Program but, by and large, we don’t have an on-the-ground presence in Gaza itself.

QUESTION: But your reports are – but – that they are grave. Your reports are describing kind of grave and dire humanitarian conditions. Is that correct?


MR. DUGUID: We’ve got Charlie Wolfson, please.

QUESTION: This is Charlie Wolfson from CBS News. Can you put in any kind of context, numerical or otherwise, the scope of the need compared to what’s been delivered or promised to be delivered?

MR. SUMKA: Well, the scope of the need is quite extensive. We are prepared just through our regular budget, which we’re actually diverting the humanitarian relief operation -- we’re prepared to go to $10 or $15 million of assistance over the next couple of weeks, if the hostilities last that long. We would be prepared probably to put $40 to $60 million in an immediate post – an immediate ceasefire situation, so that – in which we could work a little more comfortably.

But I would say that in terms of food and medical supplies and the non-food items, like mattresses and blankets and the plastic that I talked about, there’s just not very much of that getting in right now at all, and that’s a problem. I believe that the commitments that the internationals have made to procure and distribute these commodities probably would meet the need quite well, but the problem is the logistics and the security.

QUESTION: A follow-up, if I might. I know the situation now, and I think for the past three, four, maybe it’s five years now, U.S. officials have not been going into Gaza for reasons we all know. In a ceasefire situation, has anyone envisioned the idea that that might change, due to the current crisis?

MR. SUMKA: We have not even begun to talk about that. We have not gone into Gaza since October of 2003 when an American convoy was hit by an IED and three Americans were killed. We manage our Gaza programs with a staff of about – or it used to be a staff of about a half a dozen Gazan employees and with contractors and grantees who are actually doing the work for us, who have an on-the-ground presence. So all of what we do there is managed by Gazans and by the contractors and grantees. Right now, I have no expectation of being able to go into Gaza, myself or other U.S. Government employees, anytime soon.

MR. DUGUID: Time for just two more questions, if they’re brief. Joel, then Kirit.


QUESTION: Joel Wishengrad again, World Media Report, WMR News. Howard, what is the type of the selection of food products that are going into Gaza? Is it prepackaged food? Is it food that has been selected by the authorities in Gaza and the UN NGOs, as well as others? Or is this – these – are these items something similar to what would be procured here, for instance, in the United States with FEMA going into Katrina and other hurricane situations?

MR. SUMKA: We – the food program that we run with (inaudible) with WFP, the World Food Program, basically consists of providing each family – and we have had 20,000 beneficiary families – providing each one with a package of five foods: wheat flour, chickpeas, cooking oil, salt and sugar. And we make the distributions on a monthly basis, and they get enough of those commodities for a month.

Now obviously, there’s a problem now because families that get wheat flour might not be able to bake bread because they haven’t got electricity or because they’re displaced from their houses. So the wheat flour now is more likely going to bakeries, and the bakeries that have generators can actually bake the bread. And in the new purchases that we’re doing, we are beginning to purchase packaged, non-perishable food items. But the vast majority of the food we’ve put in has been this five basic commodities package that is kind of a standard, high-calorie package for families.

MR. DUGUID: From Kirit, and then if it’s brief, back to Charlie.

QUESTION: Just to – since you are on the ground, I figure maybe you have a larger picture of the humanitarian aid that’s going into Gaza, not just from the United States. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about where you’re seeing the most aid come from, if it’s not the U.S. – the amount of Iranian aid, for example, that might be coming into Gaza.

MR. SUMKA: I have no idea. I have not seen any aid coming in from any specific countries. There’s – there are aid shipments that are coming in through Egypt and they’re either – if Rafah is open to allow a few trucks, they’ll come in that way; otherwise, they can come around from Egypt through the Kerem Shalom crossing. Those commodities have come from Qatar and other Gulf state countries. I don’t think it’s been a huge amount, but I really am not sure.

MR. DUGUID: I’d have to refer to you UNRWA, I think, for those sorts of things.

MS. HOPKINS: Yes. There’s quite a few countries actually contributing, but not directly to UNRWA, though.

MR. DUGUID: Okay. Charlie.

QUESTION: It’s Charlie Wolfson, CBS again. Two things. You mention non-perishable items. Can you say what those might be?

And then on a totally different issue, in other cases where aid has been given in some war zone or conflict situations, there’s been concern about aid being siphoned off. Can you tell us whether you have any such concerns in this case, and what you can do about that, if any – anything?

MR. SUMKA: Okay. Non-perishables include powdered milk, canned foods of various kinds. These are not the ideal items to provide, you know, food assistance because they’re heavy and they’re difficult to ship. We have even been considering UHT milk, because we’re not sure that powdered milk – that for powdered milk, there’d be enough clean water to mix it.

The issue of siphoning off, we maintain through our partner that distributes the food, which in this case is CHF International, they maintain control of the food from the time it gets into Gaza, once they’ve picked it up from UNRWA, and it goes to their warehouses which are secure and under their control, and then it’s distributed by them.

MS. HOPKINS: And we don’t have any specific concerns about UNRWA assistance being siphoned either.


QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you, Mr. Sumka. Thank you, Ms. Hopkins. Thank you all for attending today. That concludes our briefing.

MR. SUMKA: Thank you very much.


[1] PRM

Released on January 9, 2009

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