AUG. 20, 2014
Gaza Cost Far Exceeds Estimate, Official Says
By RICK GLADSTONE
UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations drastically underestimated the devastation that could result from possible assaults by Israel on Gaza this year, with 350,000 people so far displaced from a six-week-old conflict -- seven times the 50,000 foreseen in its contingency plan, the top Unicef official for the crowded Palestinian enclave said Wednesday.
The official, Pernille Ironside, also said that if the severe Israeli trade constraints on Gaza were not relaxed, a preliminary analysis showed it could take 18 years to rebuild destroyed housing, furthering the prospect that young Gazans would reach adulthood in deprivation, anger and despair.
"Already before this conflict, the situation in Gaza for children was extraordinarily dire," she said. "There was a major water and energy crisis, massive unemployment, 80 percent of the population on some kind of aid. The future was pretty bleak, if you're a young person in Gaza."
Ms. Ironside, 40, a Canadian-born human rights lawyer and child advocate who has served in conflict zones including Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke in an interview at Unicef's United Nations headquarters during a brief visit before returning to Gaza next week. As the chief of Unicef's Gaza field office, she has been working and living there for a year, including through the fighting between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military that began July 8. Nearly 2,000 Palestinians have been killed, mostly civilians and including more than 450 children. Sixty-four soldiers and three civilians have been killed on the Israeli side.
One of her principal worries in Gaza, Ms. Ironside said, is the long-term psychological damage inflicted on young children, some of whom lived through the other two Israeli military assaults since 2008. "If you're 7 years old, you've now gone through three wars," she said.
Unicef counselors have devoted much of their effort in Gaza to trauma counseling for children who have seen relatives killed and homes obliterated. "People underestimate the toll that has on little people," she said. The symptoms, she said, include "signs of withdrawal, not speaking, no interest in playing, no interest in eating, not letting their parents out of their sight."
She said some of Unicef's most important work in Gaza, where more than half the population is younger than 18, has been to provide steady sources of drinking water to schools and the poorest households. "We've been basically addressing a water crisis," she said, through the construction of 13 desalination plants that treat ground water and another that desalinates seawater from the Mediterranean. Some may have been damaged, she said, and "we're in the process of checking each one of those facilities."
Like other United Nations officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Ms. Ironside has strongly criticized the Israeli military actions in Gaza, where the United Nations is the leading provider of basic services to the population of 1.8 million Palestinians. And like other United Nations officials, she has also faced criticism from pro-Israel activists who have accused the organization of playing down or ignoring abuses by Hamas, the dominant militant group in Gaza, and its rocket attacks aimed at Israel.
Ms. Ironside faced particular criticism from the Israeli side last month over a PBS interview  in which she asserted that Gazan children were bearing the greatest brunt of the conflict. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, said she had ignored what it called the exploitation of United Nations schools as rocket-storage sites. Ms. Ironside said that she had responded to what she had been asked, "none of which focused attention on the impact of the conflict on Israeli children, or Hamas's military tactics."
On the second day of the conflict, Ms. Ironside said, an early morning Israeli airstrike near her Gaza residence shattered windows in her building, rendering it uninhabitable, and she has since been living in the Unicef office, sleeping on a mattress. Her most worrisome moment, she recalled, was during a night of particularly heavy Israeli bombardments, where she and 200 other United Nations workers were crowded into the basement of their building in Gaza City. "It was very stressful," she said.
Still, she lived in privilege compared with ordinary Gazans. "People have truly felt there is nowhere safe for them to go," she said. "I would say they're both terrified and terrorized."