Situation in Gaza: Discussion with UNRWA.

I welcome Mr. John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, in Gaza. In 1983 he was commissioned into Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Defence Forces, with which he served in peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He spent 18 months working for the Irish NGO, GOAL, as its regional director for Rwanda, Zaire and Tanzania in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. He was subsequently seconded in 1997 by the Defence Forces to the OSCE mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina where he became Chief of Staff, a position in which he served until his appointment to UNWRA in February 2006. He is accompanied by Mr. Maurice McQuillan, humanitarian programme leader with Trócaire, whom I welcome.

I thank Mr. Ging for coming before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. The desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza is of immediate concern to members. The death toll during the Israeli military action at the start of the year greatly shocked the Irish people. In the aftermath of the recent conflict it appears that, in addition to the severe loss of life suffered by the civilian population in Gaza, there has also been an effective deconstruction of the entire territory through the destruction of essential infrastructure, agricultural lands, schools and homes.

This week the UN Human Rights Council claimed that Israel had violated a range of human rights, including targeting civilians, during its invasion of Gaza. It also called for an urgent end to Israeli restrictions on humanitarian supplies to Gaza. It is against this dark background that Mr. Ging appears before the committee. Members are keen to hear from him regarding the current humanitarian situation and the action Israel, Hamas and other players in the region, including Ireland, could take to improve matters. A delegation of members met Mr. Ging in Palestine and produced a report on its visit to the region. I will make a copy of the report available to him.

Mr. Ging has shown extraordinary courage and commitment in the midst of the conflict, both in his humanitarian work and his constant efforts to bring about an acceptable political settlement. He may not realise it but his has become a household name in Ireland. People are very proud of the work he has done and realise the dangers involved.

Before we commence, I advise that whereas members enjoy absolute privilege in respect of utterances made in committee, witnesses do not enjoy absolute privilege. Accordingly, caution should be exercised, particularly with regard to references of a personal nature. I invite Mr Ging to make his contribution and we will then take questions. I remind members that it was agreed at a previous meeting that they should restrict their contributions and questions to no longer than five minutes each. Mr. Ging will be obliged to leave shortly after 4 p.m. in order to attend another engagement. I will endeavour to ensure members adhere to the agreed time limits. I hope there will be adequate time for members to pose their questions.

Mr. John Ging

I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to address the joint committee and appreciate his kind words. As I am speaking to a very well informed group, I will use my time judiciously.

It is unfortunate for the civilian population of Gaza and the part of the Israeli population that lives within its environs that matters are now worse than they were prior to the conflict. We are back in Cairo trying to resolve the issues which led to rockets being fired into Israel, which caused insecurity among the people of that country and gave rise to the closure of Gaza's borders. The latter is prohibiting the restoration of a dignified existence for the people who live in Gaza. Matters are worse because people have been consumed by the grief of losing so many family members, seeing so many others injured and witnessing the devastating destruction that has occurred.

The first casualty in any conflict is the truth. Until we can obtain the truth in respect of what happened, there will be no possibility of the region emerging from this provocative, self-reinforcing cycle of violence. Policies must be founded upon reality rather than rhetoric. For too long, it has been all rhetoric and there has been very little attachment to reality. In that context, I refer to the reality of the plight of the civilian population on both sides who are the victims of the conflict. The reality on which I would like everyone to focus revolves around how the people affected are being obliged to subsist and endure at this time.

We face a challenge because the context in which we are operating is extremely difficult and politicised. However, while there are political complexities, it is easy to witness what is happening to ordinary people on a daily basis. People on the Israeli side wait each day to see if rockets will be fired into their country from Gaza. It is more than likely that this will occur. Rockets are still being launched from Gaza and this activity must cease. Corporal Shalit who has passed his 1,000th day in captivity must be released. There is a need for effective action to achieve these two objectives. On the other side of the boundary in Gaza, some 1.5 million people are being deprived of their livelihoods and a dignified existence. Increasingly, they are also being deprived of the restoration of such an existence.

Both sides are despairing of the absence of the application of the effective rule of law in order to restore their rights and security. They are increasingly being prevailed upon by those who support the use of violence and inform them that solutions, justice or accountability — whether in respect of the firing of rockets or with regard to the military response thereto — will not be forthcoming through the rule of law. This is something we have to counter in action, not just words. From the perspective of having to deal with the consequences, the United Nations must focus on the human development of the population in Gaza. There are 200,000 children in our care. They are in our schools and we want them to grow up to be decent, civilised people with an orientation and a mindset to contribute positively, to be tolerant in their outlook, accommodating and have the academic capacity to be productive in order that they can have a livelihood rather than rely on handouts. Equally, we want them to realise and understand the importance of political and legal processes to resolve conflict rather than resort to violence. That is our occupation in Gaza.

We have a massive humanitarian challenge, compounded by the last round of conflict, but circumstances are working against us because today we cannot contemplate reconstructing Gaza, despite all the devastation, as there is totally inadequate access, even for vital humanitarian supplies such as food, medicine, blankets, clothing and so on. There has been no relaxation or easing of the restrictions in Gaza. As no extra effort has been made to get vital humanitarian supplies into Gaza, the people languish in the rubble of their despair.

In addition, rockets continue to be fired. As the Secretary General said, this is all the product of collective political failure. However, I am not without hope because I see the people and they want nothing more than what I have outlined. They want to have a dignified existence; they appeal for the application and implementation of the rule of law and do not support violence. We cannot take for granted that this will continue to be the prevailing sense or approach in Gaza because half the population comprises children who are increasingly influenced by the environment in which they are growing up. Notwithstanding the efforts made by us and others, the influences of their environment and the overwhelming and pervasive sense of injustice they experience on a daily basis are having an effect, but we will do our best. We will redouble our efforts to teach human rights and all that goes with this and counter the effects. Let us be clear. We will not succeed unless circumstances on the ground change. It starts with restoring the primacy of international law and respecting it in terms of access which is the key to everything. I sincerely hope this will happen.

I am pleased a number of senior politicians have visited Gaza.. They have broken the taboo that one cannot come to Gaza. It is not too dangerous to come. It does not mean there are no dangers but the civilian population is in peril and desperate need of protection and effective political action and it behoves everyone of us to realise this. Equally, there is a civilian population on the border of Gaza in Israel who are also in daily peril. It is not a matter of keeping score about how many dead or injured there are or how much destruction has taken place. Both civilian populations are bearing the brunt of this violence which is emanating from both sides and must cease to get us back onto another track.

We want in Gaza the friends of Israel to visit. We want in Israel the friends of Palestine to visit and please have an open mind. This is a difficult set of circumstances but people who have an open mind can sit, listen and understand and then have a commitment to help one's friends to help themselves. Palestinians have to take their responsibility. They cannot wait for the other side to take its responsibility before they live up to theirs. Equally, Israel must take its responsibility and live up to it, irrespective of whether the other side does so.

I am confident on the basis of the interaction I have had that there are sufficient people on all sides committed to civilised and legal approaches and political processes to achieve an end to this violence but they need help. I appeal to the committee and commend it for its engagement. The role played by Ireland is highly appreciated. I know this because I hear it and convey the appreciation the people there have for the empathy and understanding of the committee and the Irish people and the financial support which in time of need is great.

I welcome Mr. Ging and Mr. McQuillan. I thank Mr. Ging for his enlightening submission and pay tribute to him for the work he has done and the image he has presented, as a cool, fair and impartial voice at an emotive time. He used the term "open mind" but there are very few open minds on this issue. Most people who have articulated a view have a definite mindset, which is one of the difficulties. We are proud in this country that we have someone like Mr. Ging who will do what he is doing. He also mentioned the difficulty with the truth. How can we get at it? I refer to the difficulty of getting accurate information out of Gaza. He said truth was the first casualty of conflict. How can we get at the truth in a conflict and over the difficulties encountered by Mr. Ging relating to misleading information? How can this be addressed?

With regard to conditions in Gaza, is there much internal conflict? We often think of the conflict between Palestine and Israel but, within Gaza, is there internal conflict? If so, what impact is it having on progress being made?

Mr. Ging mentioned immediate and longer term needs. If he could outline one immediate need, what would it be? He mentioned the positive view of Ireland's role. How can we enhance our contribution? How can the European Union enhance its contribution? Should Irish and EU policy on the region change?

Reference was made to rockets being fired from Gaza. What is the population's desire? Is there support for the firing of rockets? What is the view of Israelis on the ground? Did they support the conflict?

Mr. Ging has said restrictions have not been eased. If they were, would there be a negative impact? Why is the crossing at Rafah into Egypt not open? We often concentrate on the crossings into Israel but why is the crossing into Egypt not open?

Mr. Ging referred again to the need to have an open mind. When people visit him, do most of them have a definite mindset? Does he ever feel under pressure to pass judgment on the rights or wrongs of the situation? Does he come under pressure to make a judgment call in favour of one side? Is it difficult for him to pass judgment on an incident because condemnation of one side is seen as support for the other and vice versa? Does that lead to a certain restraint in getting the information out there?

I thank Mr. Ging and Mr. McQuillan for attending. I applaud Mr. Ging on the courageous work he has done over the past three years. The assessments on the situation in Gaza we hear from him are objective. He said we are back to where we were before the recent conflict, which involved desperate loss of life and the destruction of property, including schools. That should teach everyone that violence is not the way forward. I will ask about the immediate need for humanitarian aid in Gaza. Has there been any improvement in access to the region? What can be done to make such an improvement? We know from our experience in this country that it can be a long struggle to get people on both sides of a conflict to look beyond the politics of the last atrocity. Serious problems are caused when people respond to one atrocity with another atrocity. How can we get both sides to respect each other? How can we move away from that type of politics? Is there any sign of an improvement in the relationship between Hamas and Fatah? Is it possible that they will come together? Does Mr. Ging think that the new Israeli Government will take a more moderate approach? How does he envisage that it will develop? Mr. George Mitchell, who has good experience, did a tremendous job here. We would all be happy if he were to have similar success in the Middle East. It would be worthwhile for people on both sides of the conflict to listen to him. He certainly made a major contribution to resolving the conflict in this country, which seemed to be intractable. Is there anything more that Ireland or the EU should be doing to foster a humanitarian approach to Gaza? Is it possible that a settlement can be reached in the short term, rather than in the long term?

I would like to join other members in welcoming Mr. Ging and Mr. McQuillan to this meeting of the committee. I will be brief. Mr. Ging's presentation should remove any doubt from people's minds about the balance and fairness of the statements he has made since the start of the most recent terrible conflict in Gaza. Mr. Ging was particularly fair when, while standing in front of a UNRWA school in Gaza, he spoke about the enormity of any action that puts children at risk. It is right that the Irish people have such immense admiration for his stance in favour of a strong and courageous humanitarian position. Before I finish this point, I am morally bound to say that I felt the attempts to twist what Mr. Ging said, which related to the quality of the person who was representing UNRWA, were scurrilous. I will move on from that point, in order to be positive, by asking a number of questions while staying within the Chairman's time limit. On 2 February last, the UN appealed for a €613 million fund to be made available, over a nine-month period, to help 1.4 million people, including 500,000 schoolchildren. How much of the €613 million fund is now in place? Is it likely that the full sum will be delivered?

My second point relates to the issues of access to aid and the work of reconstruction. There is a considerable distance between what Mr. Ging has said and the statements that have been made by the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council. Over 20 years have passed since I first went to Gaza. It is no longer possible to justify the descriptions of what is taking place in Gaza, or the conditions that exist there. Very few people can say they have not had an opportunity to get such details. I suggest that everyone should be familiar not only with what happened to previous generations, but also to what has happened to the two most recent generations. It is reasonable to point out that there is a huge distance between the statements made by the General Affairs and External Relations Council and the situation on the ground, as explained by people like Mr. Ging. How often do people need to have such conditions described to them? Why do people continue to wonder about matters with which they do not have the political will to engage?

Mr. Ging made an interesting point about the indivisibility of international law. He argued that its basis is the suggestion that all civilians, irrespective of their circumstances, are entitled to protection. The people of Sderot and all other places are entitled to protection from rockets that are directed at them. The conditions that follow such rockets should be investigated. It is clear, in response to what Mr. Ging has said, that an international inquiry into breaches of international law by both sides would be important. I refer in particular to the most recent Human Rights Watch publication, which related to the use of white phosphorous. It would be a waste of time for this committee to have an argument about whether the suggested elevation in the level of use of such equipment is real. The fact of the matter is that we would not stand for much, as a parliamentary committee, if we did not support unequivocally the demand for an international inquiry.

It is worth remembering that after 2005, some distinguished people were of the opinion that Gaza could become a Palestinian state, or little statelet. It was thought that would satisfy certain people for the moment. Is it not the case that Gaza could never become a Palestinian state, as it does not satisfy the contiguity requirement? It does not have the apparatus of a state that is necessary. Even as we are dealing with these problems, we are in fact witnessing the development of further problems. The joint committee has been in communication with people who have asked it to draw attention to the threatened housing demolitions in East Jerusalem, the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and the absolute blockage of the most basic emergency foodstuffs into the area under siege.

I would like to join the Chairman in commending Mr. Ging's courage. Ernest Hemingway described courage as "grace under pressure". When Mr. Ging was on television over Christmas, he displayed that in abundance. I was in Palestine this time last year. I would like to ask a question that I have also asked at the Joint Committee on European Affairs. It relates to the fact that approximately 80% of Israel's trade is with the EU. The human rights clause — I think it is clause 2 — in the EU's trade agreement with Israel states that Israel's preferential trade agreement with the EU can be revoked if human rights violations are deemed to have taken place. There has been a great deal of talk about possible human rights abuses. Does Mr. Ging believe that human rights abuses have taken place? If they have taken place, does Mr. Ging believe that the overall situation in Palestine would benefit if the EU were to withdraw its preferential trade agreement with Israel? The imposition of trade sanctions on South Africa affected the situation there in the 1980s.

Like Deputy O'Hanlon, I would like to know what Ireland can do to assist Mr. Ging's work in Gaza. Does Mr. Ging believe that a trip by the members of this committee to Gaza, to see the situation on the ground for ourselves, would be beneficial? Perhaps the Chairman can also consider that question. The last time we went out there, we got as far as Sderot. An attack may or may not have been taking place while we were there. I find it amazing that the EU is prepared to send €600 million to this area, which has been destroyed by the Israelis, without any recourse to a resolution. It has been destroyed by the Israelis and I would estimate it will probably be destroyed again sometime soon by the Israelis. It might not happen next year or the year after. Without any recourse to a resolution that money is temporary money. While we will rebuild the schools, the infrastructure and the power stations, the EU is sitting on its hands by not using the weapon of trade to get the Israelis to give the Palestinians in Gaza some form of human rights, some standard of living and some hope for the future. The spending of that money could be pure folly. I would like Mr. Ging's view on that. I know the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza needs the money immediately, but without the EU using its considerable muscle on trade with the Israelis, I question the sensibility of trying to raise it in these difficult times and spending it, only for the Israelis to blow it all up again.

I invite Senator Ann Ormonde, after which I will ask Mr. Ging to respond. We will then have questions from other members.

I thank Mr. Ging for giving us what is a rather bleak presentation of the situation. It seems the truce is about to collapse, that there is no win on either side and there seems to be no hope. However, much money is going in to help the ordinary civilians who have been injured and damaged. How is that money being spent? I think of the little children and the effect of what has happened on their mindset. It is dangerous for the future generations of both countries. How can we best have programmes to try to shield them? How beneficial are those programmes?

Five more contributors will ask questions later.

Mr. John Ging

I thank members for their comments and I will do my best to answer the questions. How do we get the truth out? We need as many messengers as possible, which is why we need as many from different perspectives to come and witness, and to talk, listen and communicate. That is why I said that in Gaza at the moment we need the friends of Israel — we do not need the friends of Palestine — to come and talk to the ordinary people and listen to what they have to say. Time and again since this round of conflict when politicians visited they spoke with people who were standing in the rubble of their lives. Those people engaged in rational conversation with political figures. Nobody has been verbally or physically abused. None of them has experienced hatred in the dialogue that has been conducted, notwithstanding that many of them have suffered the loss of family members. They engaged with those visitors on the basis of appeal for help, and the help they are appealing for is the restoration of the rule of law, not just for accountability for what has happened. That is not the number one issue for them, the number one issue for them is protection for those who are still alive. For those who have lost a family member, it is the family members who are still alive that most concern them. Of course that needs to be experienced to be truly understood and that is why I am pleased there are so many visitors. Others have asked whether they should come. Absolutely, they should come, but not just to Gaza. They must also go and spend time on the Israeli side because we need to understand the thinking, dynamics and consequences there. Once we do that we can contribute productively.

The most immediate need is access. It is the key to everything, particularly the fuel depot and the crossing point through which fuel comes. If 100,000 litres of fuel can come in, 500,000 litres of fuel can come in. It is a political decision. It is not an operational or a security decision. We need to call it as it is. There are other security and operational challenges at other crossing points. That is one example where the necessary fuel could come into Gaza if there is a political will to open up the tap, press the button to let it in. The consequence of not letting it in is more human suffering. It also underpins a market for contraband through tunnels at the southern tip. The number one issue is access, the number two issue is access and the number three issue is access. It will go onad infinitum until we get access. Of course access needs to be depoliticised and the real security and operational challenges need to be overcome. Without access there is absolutely no positive future, no positive prospect.

I am certain there is enough ability to overcome the legitimate security and operational challenges to provide the access that is enshrined in international law, which is unfettered access for humanitarian supplies and to restore people to the freedoms that are fundamental, such as the freedom to move, including students to be allowed to resume going abroad to get their education. Many of them have earned scholarships abroad and are prohibited from leaving Gaza because of the blockade, which is not acceptable. Of course there is access for others. To say that all the crossing points are closed is not true. Politicians can come and go. When they need to go to Cairo to have talks they can leave, but it is not open for a third level student to go back to Ireland, the UK or America. That is not acceptable and that is what we must address.

How can Ireland and the EU give support? We must consider the consequences and the impact and ask whether what we are doing is helping or hurting. If members want to know the answer to that they should go to Gaza and ask the people whether it is helping or hurting them. They can go to the civilian population of Israel and ask the same question. They are the best judges of whether it is helping or hurting because they are dealing and living with the consequences.

I was asked whether there is support for the rockets being fired. No, this is the tragedy. There is no support for the rockets being fired. However, we need to consider the power that a few have to dictate action. They are controlling the agenda. We are handing the agenda over to those who would fire rockets rather than saying that irrespective of whether they are going to fire rockets, they are not going to dictate to us and that we are going to uphold international law. On top of that we are going to take effective measures to stop the rocket fire because we need to stop the rocket fire. It is the people who do not support the rocket fire who are paying the price, not those who are firing the rockets. They are fine and they are continuing to fire them. Again we must look at that.

Do Israelis support the conflict? We read in the Israeli media the dilemma they face. Of course this dilemma is more convincing to them when they are asked what the alternative is. They are not being provided with an alternative to military action that is convincing them. They are being repeatedly told that the solution to this will only be found through robust military action. When one considers the consequence and the impact, it is counterproductive to that objective. What needs to be reintroduced to the dialogue on the conflict is that there is an alternative. The only way is the alternative, but it will not be easy.

I was in Derry and Belfast where I had many meetings with people who have come through the process in Northern Ireland. The one question I continue to ask them is how they got it started because it is not over at all. What is over is the dilemma as to what is the process to success. That is over. It is now clear how to get there and there will be no reversion if the people have their way — as has been tested recently — to the violent route. We need to see how we can break this and get on to the process that will succeed and away from the process that is not succeeding.

Regarding the crossing point into Egypt, I compliment the Egyptians because they have done more than anybody else has, not just over the period of the conflict but for some time. They have been doing their very best to broker agreements, facilitate ceasefires and so on. Of course the crossing into Egypt is a pedestrian crossing. It is not a crossing for supplies. We should remember that and we should remember the international agreement on access to Gaza which we want everyone to uphold. It does not provide that the supplies will come in through Egypt. It states that they will come in through Israel because that, of course, connects the two land masses of the future Palestinian state and we do not want to sever those links. We need to get them open not just because it is in the agreement but it is also how there will be a Palestinian state into the future.

I was asked about the mindsets and the pressure to pass judgment. I will never pass judgment because I do not have possession of all the facts. I am also a barrister by qualification and I really respect the law meaning innocent until proven guilty. There must be due process to establish guilt or otherwise. No matter how compelling it might appear we must uphold that presumption. However, as a person who truly believes in the rule of law, we must have effective credible mechanisms for accountability, which is what I call for all the time. I will never succumb to the pressure of passing judgment because there is no pressure. I am not judge and juror. I am simply a person who can contribute the information, which I hope I have, to a credible and effective process.

The immediate need is access and it will continue to be the key need. It is not because I am saying it. All the parties, including the United States of America, brokered an agreement in 2005 at which it was identified as the absolute prerequisite to positive development. It has not been implemented. We need to keep that agreement on access from November 2005, brokered by the United States and agreed by all parties, and get on with implementing it. It is all contained in the preamble as to why it is so important. It is the key to everything. It is also the key to breaking the cycle. The cycle of violence is reinforced by the despair, destitution and so on.

We need to create a positive prospect not just in words but also in action. Some 100,000 people have lost their jobs since June 2007. They are now queuing for food. The private sector economy has been destroyed. The economy was actually run by the friends of Israel who lived in Gaza. They are the businessmen in Gaza who had special status with Israel. They had VIP status for coming and going. Their security was cleared by all the security services in Israel. Their businesses have been destroyed under the weight of this siege and also during the latest round of military operations.

Regarding the issue between Hamas and Fatah, Palestine divided means no future. Of course there needs to be a reunification which so many have called for. This is where Palestinians need to stand up to their responsibilities. The new Government in Israel, as with new administrations elsewhere, brings new opportunity. We must not despair. We must be determined to seek out opportunity wherever we can find it. We also must not be naïve. There will be many challenges and there will be new ones. We need to have the resolve to see those through. Again that is a matter of attitude and approach.

I met Senator George Mitchell when he came to the region upon his appointment. It is a tremendously positive development. He told me that at his age he does not have the same time as he had for Northern Ireland and so it was important to get on with it. I put it to him that he had the experience of Northern Ireland and while I should not say he would not be repeating any of the mistakes, he will be even wiser than when he arrived there, and what a result he achieved there. It is fantastic to see him engaged in the process with his experience, ability and commitment.

Is there anything more that Ireland can do? It should do all it can. There are two civilian populations involved. The difference between success and failure in this is death and destruction. Anything at all that Ireland can do is life saving. I thank members for that offer.

At this moment the money is not the issue because we can only spend the money on humanitarian supplies of food and medicine. We cannot use it to fix a window, give a person temporary accommodation and so on. We have seen an outpouring of generosity in the Sharm El Sheikh conference where pledges exceeded what was expected. Again it is not an issue at this moment. It is an issue of access. We need to focus on that.

One of the members stated that the General Affairs and External Relations Council was detached from the reality, which is true. This is why we invite everybody with a role in making policy to please come and join the reality. They need to see it, experience it and then go back and make their policies. I do not doubt the good intentions of those who are making the policies. However, they are flawed and doomed to failure if they are not based on the realities. We encourage everyone to come and see before they make policies.

I was asked about Gaza as a little statelet without a link to the West Bank. We cannot have that. The crossing points into Israel are also the crossing points into the West Bank because that is the link that is there.

On the trade agreements and conditionality, it is not for me to prescribe to other organisations what they should or should not do. However, because I have been asked a number of times I will say that we need conditionality of friendship, however one wants to characterise that and put it into effect. The two sides in this conflict need good friends. They need friends who will tell them the truth. The truth is that their actions on both sides are devastating the lives of decent human beings and also somehow contributing to the destruction of the prospects of a peaceful Middle East. We need friends who are truthful and honest and put down conditions on that friendship.

I have answered what the Irish can do and very much appreciate that. It is not just about spending money at the moment, although the money that is being spent is of course saving lives. Some 90% of the population have no way of surviving other than from the handouts of food they get from us. It is a most undignified existence for them but it is none the less their reality. We cannot cut off spending money at this point to keep people alive. We also cannot wait for political solutions to begin to develop Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian Territory because it is not a chicken and egg scenario. It is actually the two together. If the reality can be changed to a more positive dynamic it will help to unravel many of the very difficult political elements. If, on the other hand, the reality is not changed we are at an impasse. We need to create a positive dynamic on the ground which is why development is so important and I hope it will happen.

To say that the situation is bleak is an honest appraisal. The situation is very bleak and the prospect is even bleaker if we stay on the same course. Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity was to repeat the same experiment in the same way expecting a different result. If we stay doing the same thing in the same way, we will get the same result. How many more times do we need to get the same result before we stop and change direction? I am telling everybody that all is not lost. However bleak it might be, as long as we have human beings in the majority in both populations who are decent and civilized people — I firmly believe that is the case as that has been my experience out there — then we have reason to hope because they are the hope. However, we cannot take it for granted. Particularly where I am in Gaza, half of them are children, and children everywhere tend to be more susceptible to be shaped by their conditions and environment and so on.

What can we do? For six years we have been teaching human rights in an intensive way in our schools. Before that it was done in the usual way. For the past six years we have been enriching the curriculum. We now need a dedicated human rights curriculum for elementary and primary school children. Now it is so important that the children understand why it is wrong to fire rockets. The need to understand not just that it is wrong but why and what are the consequences. They need to understand not just the rights, but also the responsibilities that go with them. It is not a case of waiting for them to behave and then I will behave. That does not do it. One must start with one's own behaviour. We have a groundswell of public support to increase the teaching because the decent and civilised parents of Gaza are really concerned about what is happening to their children.

It is not just about behaviour. It is about thinking. We also have big gender programmes to push back on all the effects of this on women because women are being increasingly marginalised. However, women are essential to any process for peace and reconciliation as we have learnt in our country. We need to redouble our efforts there. We have redoubled our efforts and will need to continue to redouble them. We cannot stand still. For us at UNRWA, first and foremost it is about human development. The massive humanitarian challenge cannot distract us from the human development of the population because it is a population in need of development owing to the effects of the environment.

By way of information, Ireland has a comprehensive programme of delivery of support for the Palestinian people. In 2008, it totalled €8.6 million which was double the amount in 2005. Of this amount, €3.8 million was provided in core funding to UNRWA and a further €1.5 million was provided for fuel for Gaza's power plant. That money is provided through Irish Aid which does the work for us. At the Sharm El Sheikh conference, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, announced an additional €2.5 million in assistance this year, of which €1 million is in response to the UNRWA special appeal, €1 million to the Palestinian Authority and a further €500,000 for humanitarian response. It is a fairly substantial amount of money which is well spent and necessary.

I thank Mr. Ging, who has been very informative and direct. He has already answered my questions, so I pass.

That is the voice of experience. Someone was suggesting that I had missed somebody and I was saying that I had not.

I cannot say I will be as brief as Deputy Noonan, but I will attempt to be brief. Like everyone, I welcome Mr. Ging, who has found himself in extraordinary situations and performed in an extraordinary way. On occasions, I know he has been the subject of criticism, but I believe he has been the subject of praise. On occasions, things he has said have been used or misused by people to make political points. Having met Mr. Ging previously, I can say that his presentation today was most eloquent. It is a presentation that should be taken seriously by all members of this committee. The greatest tragedy in the manner in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is approached on this island and, with all due respects to colleagues, by some members of this committee, is that too frequently they start from a preconceived agenda. If they go to the Middle East, they see what they want to see and do not see other things that are absolutely blindingly obvious in front of them.

I very much welcome Mr. Ging's plea to bring objectivity and an open mind to addressing the issues in this region. The appalling tragedy continues in this region owing to, as Mr. Ging most eloquently put it, the repetitive human conduct as opposed to trying to change direction and bring about a resolution. Arising from what Mr. Ging said today, I would like to ask some brief questions. I will try not to cover ground colleagues have already covered. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is obviously impacted substantially by the inability of people in Gaza to trade normally, by the difficulty in getting supplies in since the recent conflict. Much of the current situation has its roots in the events of June 2007, which Mr. Ging briefly touched on, when essentially Hamas took over Gaza. Perhaps he could tell us something about the impact of that takeover on the population of Gaza. I am not simply talking about the Israeli impact which I will come to in a moment. How has Gaza changed or how is it being ruled differently under the leadership of Hamas? Does Mr. Ging accept there is a major difficulty in bringing about the sort of resolution and travelling the route that many of us feel should be travelled — the blindingly obvious route that we have known on this island — in circumstances in which Hamas, certainly at present, is resolutely opposed to talks that resolve the difficulties and appears to be opposed to the talks that Fatah has attempted to engage in with the Israeli state to bring about an effective and functioning peace process? I believe members of Fatah are under threats to their lives for engaging in such a peace process.

I very much welcome the human rights course that is taking place under the auspices of UNRWA within the schools. Have there been difficulties in running those courses in the context of some of the political or legal approaches the Hamas administration have attempted in Gaza? It is my recollection that there have been attempts to introduce aspects of Sharia law which have been a cause for concern. Does Mr. Ging see prospects of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas? He is absolutely right to praise Egypt for its initiatives both in that area and in trying to resolve issues between Hamas and the Israeli side. From our talks when we visited, Fatah and Hamas have entirely different visions of what a Palestinian state should be. One sees it to be a secular state and the other sees it as an Islamic state. There are not simple political ideological differences but also theological differences in their approaches. Does Mr. Ging see that as a cause of difficulty in advancing any peace process that can ultimately work? Does he see any solution to that? My impression is that in the context of rocket fire from the Israeli side, they see restricting access of vehicles or trade to or with Gaza as being a mechanism to try and prevent rockets being fired into Israel. I am not saying it is the correct mechanism, but rather that this is the way it is perceived. They are criticised when they do that, and when there is a violent response from the Israelis, they are equally criticised.

What does Mr. Ging believe the Israelis should do in the context of the rocket fire continuing? Based on the last information I received, since the conflict there has been in excess of 200 rockets or thereabouts fired from Gaza into Israel. There is an aspect of a chicken and egg situation to this. If the rocket fire stopped, the access problems, essentially, would ultimately be resolved. The rocket fire continuing contributes to the access problems — and the fact that there are access problems motivates people to fire rockets. I should be interested to know how that issue could be addressed.

In the context of rocket fire there have been some reports to the effect that Hamas has been trying to stop the rockets while Islamic Jihad and other smaller groups have been firing them. I do not know whether Mr. Ging is privy to any information in that context.

Proinsias De Rossa, MEP

I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to speak. Like other speakers I welcome Mr. Ging and make the point that on a recent visit, after the aggression against Gaza, I spoke to one of the directors of the American School. He was full of praise for Mr. John Ging and described him as a hero. He did not know at the time that I was Irish, but obviously I was very pleased to hear it.

One thing that struck me on my visit to Gaza was the enormous patience and fortitude of the ordinary people I met, who were standing in the rubble of their homes — men and women who had lost their wives, children, daughters, sons and mothers. It was quite extraordinary and while I will not get into politics, it seems to me that if these people were given a chance to speak and to meet Israelis on the other side, peace would certainly be possible.

Just last week I met an organisation in Brussels which represents 100 civil society organisations, both Israeli and Palestinian that is also trying to find ways of ensuring that the needs of Israelis for security are addressed, in overcoming what is described as "existential fear" for their survival. Then there is the real fear, too, that rockets will rain down on their heads in Gaza at any moment.

I would agree with Mr. Ging that the situation there is extremely bleak, but the potential is enormous. Just this week in Strasbourg, a doctor visited us. Three of his daughters were killed in Gaza. He had worked in Israeli hospitals and five of his children survived. He is a widower and is actually about to establish a foundation for the education of Palestinians in peace. He wants to use the death of his daughters as a signal that the killing on both sides has to stop. He reminded me of Senator Gordon Wilson, whom we all remember so well and whose daughter was pulled out of the rubble in Enniskillen some years ago. He also showed that type of extraordinary bravery.

There are also Israelis, fathers and mothers who lost sons and daughters, and this should not be forgotten, either. I will not get into numbers in this regard, since they are all human beings. The big problem with this conflict is that it dehumanises the human beings involved, and propaganda, likewise, dehumanises the people on both sides. It is not for me to propose, but I would certainly suggest that this committee should visit the region and meet the Israelis and civil society on both sides. It should visit Gaza, and Syria as well as Egypt and Iran, because they are all players in this. It would be important for the committee to see the facts on the ground.

One of the strongest pleas I have heard among Palestinians I have met, not just the politicians, but rather the people on the ground is to the effect: "Why does the world stand aside and let this happen to us?" They do not see these meetings and the concern being expressed in forums such as this. What they see is Israelis raining bombs on them and nothing happens to Israel. In their view there is no accountability. It is not for me to judge whether this would work, but on the evidence from the people I saw and spoke to, there isprima facie evidence that individual soldiers, at least, engage in crimes. That is evident in terms of the verbal accounts presented to me. An independent international inquiry is needed into this so that people can see justice being done — just as I should like to see inquiries into what Hamas is doing in Gaza. One of the striking things for me in relation to Gaza, which I have been visiting for some years, is that there was a time there when everybody walked around and one did not know whether they were Muslim, Christian or whatever. On the streets now one does not see a woman dressed in anything other than the hijab. I will stop now, since I appreciate the time element, but I just wanted to make that point.

On the UN schools, on a recent visit to UNRWA headquarters we were told about the schools and the curriculum. The UNRWA curriculum is being pursued also in the official Gaza schools. Could Mr. Ging tell us what the curriculum comprises and how many such schools there are, organised by UNRWA?

We have been there and we have a report on the visit. We met Mr. Ging there and he was particularly helpful to us. We planned to go again, just this week, but circumstances on both sides made that difficult. It is our intention to go again as soon as we can.

We have four people left and Mr. Ging has to leave. Perhaps we could take two minutes apiece. I call on Deputy Costello, first, please.

I thank our guest here, today. It was enlightening to see Mr. Ging on our television screens over the Christmas period, giving such a balanced account of what was going on. His own agency was bombed on the very day the peace talks began in which the United Nations Secretary General was engaged. I wonder whether he can gives us the final up to date figures on the death toll on both sides.

For me, the ultimate irony is that $3.5 billion was pledged at Sharm el-Sheikh in relation to the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, after three weeks of destruction. One can speculate about what could have been done with all that money — in terms of humanitarian aid, medical supplies, rebuilding, education, hospitals and all of that — if it had been available before the incursion and the siege of Gaza. That happened before and as things are fairly bleak, it may happen again. Can he tell us whether Israel has made any contribution to that €3.5 billion? It now seems impossible to use it, because there is no meaningful access, even for humanitarian aid for reconstruction.

We have been talking about the primacy of international law and the abuse of human rights, and the EuroMed trading agreement is based on these rights. We have heard numerous calls for international investigations. Human Rights Watch recently called for an investigation into the reckless and deliberate use of phosphorous. The UN and Amnesty International have also called for investigations. Is this meaningful? Who might institute an international investigation? Either there have been violations of human rights, war crimes and the deliberate use of phosphorous during the campaign, or there have not. If we find out that these acts were committed, are there consequences for those who committed them? We seem to be talking in a vacuum in calling for this and that, but there is no action to determine the result.

The Joint Committee on European Affairs has decided that it will call in the UN rapporteur for the occupied territories since 1967 and the European Commissioner with responsibility for the area, as well as Dick Spring, who was Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time the original EuroMed agreement was signed in 1995. These people will come before the committee and decide whether Article 2 of that agreement still holds, which states that the entire agreement is based on respect for human rights.

Mr. Ging's compassion and clarity of analysis is inspiring. I find it interesting that we talk about bringing objectivity into the whole arena on the one hand, yet on the other hand, Israel has slaughtered over 1,000 people in a few weeks even though the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are portrayed as extremists. When I was there in November, my impression was that they are ordinary people just like us who are literally dying to get on with a new, peaceful life. Mr. Ging's programme included some very successful sports activities. Can he give an indication of the extent of that, just to highlight how people want to get on with their lives?

I thank the witnesses for coming here today. I thank them for the leadership they showed in doing great humanitarian work, not just in Gaza but in other conflict regions, some of which I was involved in in a previous life. This has been a very worthwhile exchange, and I thank the Chairman for arranging it.

I am taking a message of hope from the presentation. From the backdrop of a very bleak situation, there is hope if we have open minds. Ireland has a contribution to make in trying to resolve many conflicts. We have done it in many parts of the world and we are all about finding solutions. It is significant that the witnesses met people in Northern Ireland. I had some involvement there when I was in the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is right to draw inspiration from what happened there, as the violence ended. It took a long time for that to happen, but the killing stopped and that is what must happen in the case we are discussing.

There has been a change of Administration in the US and George Mitchell is now in the Middle East. He has plenty of time to work on this issue and he will do so. I am hopeful in the midst of all this terrible carnage. The witnesses were right to identify in particular the suffering that has been endured by young children. The change of Government in Israel should also give us hope. We must work from the perspective of a new beginning. We must get into a political process and try to move it forward. That can be done.

I am not a member of this committee, but I am glad to hear that it will be travelling to the area shortly. I was invited to go by a European Union organisation, and I expressed my willingness to do so. However, I did inform this organisation that I would like to meet all the parties, be they Hamas, Fatah, the Israeli Government and aid agencies such as those before us today. If that happens from an EU perspective, that is fine. We represent a nation that is interested in finding solutions to issues such as this. We have a strong reputation on the humanitarian side and we have provided considerable amounts of money. We can promote international law, but we need the right infrastructure on the ground and make sure people have access and that they can travel. The witnesses pointed out that some young students cannot leave the region to study in places like Ireland. If we have not got the basic freedoms to travel, then it is hard to apply international law. If the committee members go to the region, then it is important that they speak to all the parties involved.

Senator Norris had to wait until the Seanad adjourned.

I had to take an Adjournment matter about post-doctoral research fellows in the university sector. I am sorry I missed part of Mr. Ging's submission. I was in the Middle East during that appalling period, and just about the only hopeful thing was Mr. Ging's extraordinary dignity, courage and moral integrity. I do not know how he managed to sustain it. From time to time I detected moral outrage, but I noticed the superb qualities of diplomacy, of which I am not entirely capable. We also had representations here from a distinguished Israeli scholar, Professor Ilan Pappé, who warned against any parity of suffering and introduced the legally valid notion of proportionality. There is an extraordinary, grotesque lack of proportionality. I admire Mr. Ging for his diplomatic skills in frontloading Gilad Shalit, which is an important case, as well as the rockets and so on, but those of us who do not have to be diplomatic must keep in mind the extraordinary lack of proportion involved.

Can Mr. Ging confirm that the rocket attacks had dropped to zero in October? Can he confirm that they were re-ignited by the assassination of a number of persons within Gaza in November? I regarded that as a cynical attempt to re-inflame the situation.

If he has time perhaps, Mr. Ging might comment on the exclusion of journalists. Thank God al-Jazeera was there. I watched it in what I believe was a reasonably impartial way, and I have a track record. The exclusion of journalists appeared to be sinister.

We used what little diplomatic skill we have to ensure that, despite disagreements from certain sections, a motion was passed unanimously in this committee and in Seanad Éireann that seeks the establishment of an investigation into alleged war crimes on both sides. I hope the motion will be passed also in Dáil Éireann. Perhaps Mr. Ging might comment on that and on how we might facilitate this. The question of accountability is paramount. We will have betrayed the people of both Palestine and Egypt if we do not have accountability in the international quarter.

Other people have spoken and have covered most of the situation and I understand Mr. Ging is under pressure. I shall leave it at that.

A total of 13 people have spoken from all sides and Mr. Ging will see there is great support for the work he is doing. We do not really expect him to deal with every matter raised but he might care to give a brief commentary. I note he has a very small thick notebook that appears to have a great deal in it.

Mr. John Ging

I thank Deputy Noonan because his question is the easiest to answer but I also thank everybody else for their comments. As the Chairman warned me, I do not have the privilege of the House. I must point out also that we are not a political party and have no desire to be such.

The impact of the takeover of Gaza by Hamas was devastating and we must not lose sight of the fact of how brutal that was. That was Palestinians at their worst. They used dreadful brutality against themselves. The reports from the time should not be forgotten.

Hamas does not support the principles of the Quartet and that is not acceptable. One cannot be duplicitous in the process. We had all of that in our own country in terms of trying to walk two roads at the same time. What is needed is an unequivocal commitment to end violence and to proceed to resolve the conflict through peaceful means and a political process. This will be quite a challenge but it is what must happen. From the outset there has to be an unequivocal acceptance of the conditions of the Quartet.

I have communicated this directly, without any apology, to Hamas and to everybody else in Gaza, and will continue to do so because this is an absolute prerequisite for moving forward. It comes back to taking responsibility for oneself and for one's own actions. When one is clear about living up to the standards required then one can start to talk about the responsibilities of others. I very much agree with members in that respect.

There have been many changes since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. Many of these have been reported by human rights organisations and I truly commend them for their courage. These are Palestinians on the ground who report endlessly on violations without any fear of repercussions even though they might have good reason to fear such. However, they go on and that is the depth and strength of their commitment to human rights. They tell it as it is and it is the case that there are many violations.

That is not to say that everything has been negative. There is a positive side and we must acknowledge that. There is a security in Gaza that did not exist before Hamas took over. There used to be anarchy there, with outbreaks, clashes and fighting, and that has stopped. At what price, to what end, and where is it going? Those are the questions we must examine.

The challenge now in Cairo is whether the Palestinians are able to reunite behind the principles of the Quartet and be truly committed to moving forward, not only in words but in action. This requires pragmatism and change. It is impossible to reconcile from current positions if one side is going to remain there with a process that will take us in a positive direction. That is what it is all about now. The test is so far "No". However, that is not to say the situation is without hope. All of us must work very hard to make it happen and I offer compliments to those who are doing this work because it is essential.

There were questions about access and rockets. Again, we must be completely honest about this. The way the rockets will stop is when those involved decide to stop firing them, when there is a political commitment by those who control the security situation and have the capacity to stop. There is no point for a mother in her home to say she is committed. She has no ability to implement that.

The rockets will stop when there is a political commitment by those with the power to stop them. They will not stop before then. They stopped last year for five months. One of my greatest frustrations was that during the previous period I had been advocating very strongly within Gaza that the occupation would not end until the rockets stopped. I said the rockets must stop first because they are illegal, irrespective of the occupation and its legal status. Again, it is a matter of taking responsibility. They stopped firing the rockets, but instead of the promised delivery of more access there was less access. These are not my figures on which members must rely but the published figures of the Israeli authorities. The situation reached the point where, during that ceasefire, we, UNRWA, for the first time in 60 years, saw our reserves depleted. Coming out of the ceasefire we ran out of food. We always carry two months of reserves but had to eat into those reserves during the ceasefire because access was tightened.

That does not excuse the firing of the rockets. However, that fact must be addressed. If we are to work at confidence building, we must deliver and encourage positive developments, rather than the opposite. If that does not happen then there must be the honesty within the system to say it is not happening. We must say, look, the rockets are not being fired but access is getting tighter. Let us be honest about this. Such action will not help consolidate stopping the rocket fire. That time, inevitably, the violence resumed but it is not justified in any way, shape or form.

The Hamas people have now made a political commitment to stop firing rockets and there are reports that they are enforcing that commitment on others who are not living up to their expectations. There have been reports of Islamic Jihad firing rockets and of the Hamas police, as they are so called, chasing after those responsible to arrest and detain them, and to enforce the decision they have made. That, again, is evidence of an intent to stop the rocket fire but the rockets are still being fired and that is why it is so urgent to have the peace process going on in Cairo established with regard to having a full ceasefire.

In terms of the people the potential is enormous. I agree entirely with the members. That is the great tragedy of this situation. People ask me all the time in Gaza why the world stands by. It is very easy to explain but is not easy to justify. It is because they have a bad image and human rights are conditional. The pervasive determination is they do not deserve human rights because of firing rockets and their use of destructive rhetoric and so on. Such is the rhetoric which exists. There is an impact from that and this is what we must teach the children in our class. We must teach them to understand that when a few among them do bad things it actually affects the image of the entire group. That is the power of bad behaviour and the consequences roll out as a result. That is an explanation not a justification, but once one understands one must act and respond accordingly. At the core of our human rights teaching is to understand responsibilities and the consequences.

We have 221 schools and 200,000 children. The curriculum is the Palestinian national curriculum but it is enriched by ourselves on human rights in particular.

I do not have the final death toll figures. Part of the problem is getting definitive, accurate information. We did not count casualties during the conflict because it is not our role and we had a very significant number of things to do. The bottom line is that the figures are very much still disputed. Has Israel made a contribution to the $3.5 billion? Not that I am aware, but that is not to say that it has not done so.

The core of the dilemma on the question of who might conduct investigations is how accountability might be achieved. Where do we point the mother in Sderot to in terms of accountability for those who fired the rockets and where do we point the mother in Bet Hanon in Gaza for the mechanism that will provide accountability for the loss that she has suffered? Investigations must be effective and credible in equal measure on both sides and they must have a capacity to deliver. We must understand that in the absence of this, the rhetoric of the extremists will continue to have a good deal of traction in the sense that they will say that there is no effective, credible mechanism for accountability. The application of the rule of law must be equally applied. There cannot be one law for one party and another for the other. An equal application of the rule of law is necessary.

Our summer games represent a very sizable recreation programme that we reintroduced one week after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. It involved 200,000 children in the summer of 2007. I was there at that time because I had come in 2006, during the summer of which Operation Summer Rains, a large military operation by Israel, took place. It was carried out in tandem with the operation in Lebanon such that we did not get as much attention as we needed. However, I pledged to myself and to others that the following year we would replace summer rains with summer games.

Summer games is a programme of recreation in a place where there are very few facilities and where children are basically out on the street or in other political camps for the summer. We provided an alternative, but in establishing that alternative we were challenged by extremists. We were attacked in the school where I launched the summer games. A body guard was killed and three of our teachers were shot. Three students were also shot as was one of their parents and a bystander. The message to us was very clear: "You are not to do this". However the message back was: "We will do so". Then, our message to the community was: "Now, over to you". We were not going to allow children to be shot every day because we had the resolve to carry on there. The community had to take care of the extremists in its midst to ensure that there were no such incidents during the summer, because we were doing what it asked us to do. Recreation was a significant issue and, sure enough, there was not one incident for the entire summer.

That is not to say that the extremists in Gaza were happy with us, because they were not, but they were under the control of the people, and because the people were happy with us they insisted on the programme continuing. Leading up to 2008 and the summer games of that year, the people were prevailed upon in the mosques not to support summer games. They were told not to send their children and so on, but we had 250,000 children. That was the response from the people.

People are blamed for not standing up for what is right, but please give them a realistic option and I assure the committee they will do so, because I have witnessed and experienced it first hand. We all know that it is not easy for good and decent Palestinians living in Gaza at present. However, if one puts something out there, they will stand up for what is right. When our aid was stolen by Hamas after the conflict, we stopped everything, turned to the people and said that was it and it was now over to them. We let it be known that we would get it all back, every sack of flour and every blanket. We sought an assurance that it would never occur again, otherwise we would not do any more there. There is people power. People rebelled against those who had stolen the aid. Everything was returned and a lesson was learned also. I end on that note. It is not naive in terms of a real basis for hope, but we cannot take it for granted. We must get working on it, fostering and developing it. It must be tangible and we must encourage it. It is not simply a case of words, it is a case of action on the ground.

The delegation's members may not have privilege before the committee, but we have been privileged to have them here. Everyone on the committee welcomed the depth of the exchange with the delegation, the courage it has shown in its work and the great common sense it has brought to its work. It will have our full support in any way that we can give it.

I thank the Egyptian ambassador for the arrangement he is making for us to visit again. I thank him for arranging for Mr. Ging to come here today. It is clear how valuable it has been for us and I am sure he enjoyed the exchange. We wish Mr. Ging well in his work. He has really given everything possible, because I realise he is under time pressure and I was concerned in that regard, but I thank him again for allowing the committee this time.

Will Deputy Shatter leave that matter until the next meeting and we will establish if we can arrange for the ambassador to be invited?

I was hoping that we might simply pass this as a motion because of what is taking place in Darfur. We could dispose of it in five minutes.

Sitting suspended at 4.50 p.m. and resumed at 4.55 p.m.