The Jerusalem Post (Link) - Ruth Eglash (February 6, 2009)
The United Nations is ready to address Hamas's use of children as human shields during last month's IDF offensive in Gaza, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "We have not yet dealt directly with the human shield issue, but we will now mention it in our reports," Radhika Coomaraswamy said in an exclusive interview following a four-day visit to the region.
"It is still very difficult for us to say that it was actually happening and we still need to conduct a full investigation into what exactly took place... but we are not denying that it happened; it is absolutely possible that Hamas was using its civilians as human shields," she said.
However, Coomaraswamy said that the UN's policy not to meet with leading members of the Hamas government - because it was officially considered a terrorist organization - seriously hampered all types of humanitarian relief work in the Gaza Strip. "It makes all our humanitarian jobs very difficult, because we cannot meet with Hamas at a political level," said Coomaraswamy, who this week met with high-level Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials, including PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, as well as with many children in both Gaza and Ashkelon to hear about the conflict from a more personal angle.
Coomaraswamy, who was appointed to her position three years ago and reports directly to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the work of UN aid agencies and other relief efforts over the past two and a half weeks since the fighting stopped meant that "basic humanitarian needs are being met" in Gaza.
However, "the children are still in urgent need of assistance, including the restoration of basic services and the immediate reconstruction of schools and hospitals," she said in a press statement later on Thursday. "UNRWA says that in order to avoid a crisis it needs roughly 400 aid trucks a day, but at the moment only about 130-140 trucks are allowed in to meet with humanitarian needs," she told the Post.
In her press release, the UN representative also reiterated calls by the international community for Israel to open all its Gaza crossings "for regular, sufficient and facilitated humanitarian access."
"The amount and kinds of supplies allowed into Gaza must be significantly expanded for any real improvement to occur," Coomaraswamy wrote, emphasizing that "humanitarian agencies must not be hampered in assisting the population and their workers authorized easy access into Gaza." She also stated that "Hamas must respect that humanitarian aid cannot be diverted."
Speaking to the Post, Coomaraswamy said that "some parts of Gaza have been completely destroyed." "Many of the children I met there vividly described very troubling experiences. Besides their material needs, I think there is a much traumatized population that needs help," she said.
The situation in Gaza is still "very raw because it's only been two weeks," she said, adding that many of the children she met there on Tuesday were "obviously very angry at Israel, but they have been guided that way by their parents and others." "My sense in Gaza is that after this conflict there seems to be greater identification with Hamas," she said.
However, she stressed, "my observations are based on only a one-day trip to the area, and many times children surprise us." The most surprising reaction from a child was during her visit to Ashkelon on Wednesday, Coomaraswamy said. "The scale [of trauma and destruction] is nothing like in Gaza, but that does not take away from the fact that a lot of the children we met there expressed to me a great deal of fear," she said. "We met a lot of children who were so traumatized that they did not even want to go to school."
However, "While their speeches were quite tough at first, when I asked them if they were interested in meeting Palestinian children, the response was unbelievable. They said, 'Yes, of course we want to meet with them and play with them or hear their stories.' It was a response from the heart," Coomaraswamy said.
"I believe that if we can reconstruct Gaza as quickly as possible then there will be able to be some hope for the future," she said. "Even though they bear the brunt of the conflict, children remain strong advocates for peace."
"Every child has the right to live in safety and security. Children from the region have suffered enough. They deserve a better future," she said.