“UNRWA: Israel’s Gaza blockade became a blockade against the UN” ran a Haaretz headline earlier in the week. It prompted reading the article and wanting to know more.
The quote was attributed to Reuters and the figure behind it was Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s Gaza spokesperson since 2006. Gunness is a highly visible figure, routinely quoted in print stories and seen often on television.
I decided to speak with Gunness to find out firsthand what he meant regarding the UN’s view that the blockade is somehow a personal impediment to his organization.
He started off by acknowledging Israel’s move to ease restrictions last week, calling it a step in the right direction — albeit small. The day the blockade was eased, he was quoted in the press as saying it was a “drop of water” in a large bucket. So this seemed a bit more forthcoming. He then explained the blaring Haaretz headline.
“After the Gaza War, a summit was held in Sharm and the international community pledged 4.5 billion dollars to reconstruct Gaza. It was the international community’s way of saying they would reconstruct and not ‘others,’” Gunness explained.
What has happened, he continued, is that because of Israel’s blockade, hardly any of the allocated funds have been spent since the blockade includes an embargo against construction materials. So the international community has been stopped from doing what it pledged to do because of the blockade.
“The Israeli strategy is to make the international community talk about a bag of cement here, a project there. We need full unfettered access through all the crossings,” he said in the Haaretz story, referring to Israel’s block against incoming cement the government fears terrorists will use to build a series of underground bunkers.
After speaking with Gunness, my Gaza sources confirmed that, indeed, the very people who are least concerned with Israel’s interests — Hamas — are rebuilding Gaza post-Cast Lead. In hundreds of factories across the strip, Hamas is collecting rubble, mashing it up, producing cement, and rebuilding.
But what of Israel’s concern that the cement will be used for building underground hideout bunkers for terrorists to retreat into post-rocket attacks?
“We were told for years that terrorists would steal the cement and build bunkers. For the past two months, UNRWA has had a deal in place with Israel to bring in cement. Terrorists are not stealing it or using it to build bunkers, so we have established a precedent: terrorists won’t take it. If you can do that for two months, you can do it for two years and so on,” Gunness countered.