In the eye of the storm

Sat, Jan 17, 2009, 00:00

PROFILE: JOHN GING:John Ging is an ex-Army officer who worked in Rwanda during the genocide and was in the Balkans when ethnic cleansing took place. As one of the UN’s main men on the ground in Gaza, he says the current Palestinian situation is the worst he has ever encountered

LIVING WITH THE angel of death perched on one shoulder, along with 1.5 million Palestinians, John Ging has become a voice for the voiceless during Israel’s devastating land, air, and sea war on Gaza.

As director of operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Ging has seen the impact of Israel’s bunker-busters, smart bombs and artillery, mortars, tanks and white phosphorus shells on living flesh and the jerry-built concrete constructions where Gazans dwell and work.

On Thursday morning, UNRWA’s headquarters compound at the centre of Gaza City took direct hits from Israeli rounds, which set fire to its warehouse and wounded three staff. Like everyone else in Gaza, Ging cannot escape the trauma of war.

He feels the pangs of hunger of Palestinian families who have not received UNRWA rations since the war began on December 27th, who cannot leave their homes to forage for food in empty shops, who cannot afford to buy anything, or who have no cash.

When asked for personal background for this profile, Ging told The Irish Times to feature a double-amputee child from Gaza instead of him. He insists that the heroes of this dark chapter of Gaza’s history are the people of Gaza and the refugees whom UNRWA serves. They have suffered untold tragedy and they should be featured, not him.

His response was typical of the man. Forthright, frank and no respecter of political correctness or the sensitivities of UN members who do not take kindly to criticism of Israel, Ging is a man fighting a war against man’s inhumanity to man. But he does not stand alone. He is joined in this battle by UNRWA’s commissioner general Karen Abu Zayed and her deputy, Filippo Grandi.

Born in 1965 in Portlaoise, Ging was educated at the Silesian College in Ballinakill (which has since moved to Celbridge) and graduated with a BA in political science. He also has a bachelor of Law and qualified as a barrister.

He began his career with the Irish army in 1983, serving for 12 years in peacekeeping missions in central Africa, the Balkans and southern Lebanon, before reaching the rank of captain. He resigned his commission voluntarily in 2002.

During his time in the army, Ging worked for 18 months with the Irish non-governmental organisation Goal, as regional director for Zaire, Tanzania, and Rwanda in the aftermath of Rwanda’s civil war.

The army took the unprecedented step at the time of seconding 16 officers to a civilian organisation for this mission, which also included 70 Goal staff. The worst task at hand was managing the Kimumba refugee camp in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), packed with Hutu women and children as well as men who may have been participants in the killing of Tutsis in Rwanda. Goal CEO John O’Shea chose Ging, a junior officer, to head the team. He says Ging had both “authority and common sense . . . Working in the camps was the hardest job Goal has done over the years.”

Goal had to organise the burial of more than 40,000 refugees who had died of cholera in order to get the outbreak under control. O’Shea says Ging got the very best out of those who worked with him.

Tom Clonan, a security analyst with this newspaper and a former army colleague, describes Ging as one of the “brightest and the best . . . intellectually a shining light, personable and popular, with a wicked sense of humour”. Clonan says Ging’s military bona fides are “impeccable”, and enable him to gauge Israel’s tactical doctrine and position on the ground.

Ging took up his UNRWA post on February 1st, 2006, five days after the Muslim Hamas movement won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in a free and fair election.

From the very first moment he arrived in the Gaza Strip, this tiny territory of 360 square kilometres was in a state of confrontation with Israel and the western powers that rejected the result of an election that their ally, the secular Fatah movement, was expected to emerge victorious from.

After weeks of trying and failing to convince Fatah to enter into a coalition government, Hamas formed a cabinet at the end of March. Israel and a quartet comprising the US, EU, UN and Russia demanded that to gain acceptance Hamas had to recognise Israel, end violence, and endorse agreements reached between Israel and Fatah. Although Hamas had indirectly met these conditions, Israel and the quartet demanded capitulation.

Hamas refused. Consequently, Israel began to restrict the flow of supplies into Gaza and the quartet cut off development funds. Ging, who had been put in charge of UNRWA’s development programmes as well as humanitarian assistance to 750,000 refugees, found he had to struggle to secure enough food to sustain the refugees and implement a $90 million programme for upgrading schools, clinics and other facilities.

Tension escalated in 2007 when clashes between Hamas and Fatah elements culminated in the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in mid-June, prompting Israel to reduce further the flow of supplies to UNRWA, from 500 lorries a day to between 50 and 100. Only basic foodstuffs and medical supplies were allowed into the Strip. Malnutrition among the young – half of Gaza’s population – was rife.

WHILE HOSTILITIES continued into 2008, UNRWA, the World Food Programme, feeding 265,000 non-refugee Palestinians, and other agencies functioned under very difficult conditions, particularly after Israel cut fuel supplies for the Gaza power plant and vehicles. The June 19th ceasefire between Israel and Hamas improved the situation considerably although Israel did not lift its blockade. The ceasefire was shattered when on November 4th, Israeli forces entered Gaza and killed six Palestinians who Israel claimed were digging a tunnel with the aim of crossing beneath the border fence to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Palestinians say the men were digging a trench. This incident prompted fire from both sides.

By November 21st, UNRWA had run out of supplies. Ging said: “I have met with the armed factions over the past two days and they stated their position clearly: they are committed to the calm as long as Israel abides by it.”

On December 14th, Hamas said it was prepared to renew the ceasefire but exchanges of rockets and Israeli fire continued. The ceasefire collapsed on the 19th. Hamas fired a salvo of rockets into southern Israel, which responded with air strikes. This led to the air phase of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead on the 27th, and a ground assault a week later. Since then UNRWA has struggled mightily to provide food, water and medical services to refugees.

Responding to statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that there is “no humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, Ging said: “We have a catastrophe unfolding in Gaza for the civilian population. The people in the north have no water. That comes on top of having no electricity. They’re trapped, they’re traumatised, they’re terrorised by the situation.

“They’re in their homes. They’re not safe. They’re being killed and injured in large numbers, and they have no end in sight. The inhumanity of this situation, the lack of action to bring this to an end is bewildering to them.”

He also castigated Israel’s targeting of public buildings. “The whole infrastructure of the future state of Palestine is being destroyed. Blowing up the parliament building – that’s not a Hamas building. The president’s compound is for the president of Palestine. Schools, mosques.”

Following Israel’s strikes on the UN compound, as Israeli troops advanced into Gaza City, Ging called for the fighting to stop. “It’s now in the centre of the most densely populated place on this planet. You cannot use artillery shells and tank rounds in such an environment. This is what we’ve all be saying for so long and we’re now, of course, at the receiving end here. But so too are tens of thousands, in fact, hundreds of thousands of people. Our plight is their plight.”

Ging has said he has never experienced anything quite as disturbing as what is happening in Gaza. He said he was in Rwanda at the time of the genocide and in the Balkans during the ethnic cleansing.

“This is happening in full view of the entire planet . . This is a disaster that should not be happening. There was a UN resolution . . . issued last week which requires all civilised people to abide by it. [This is] a test of our ability to enforce legality and not be just bystanders, waiting until the two parties” decide to implement the ceasefire.



Director of operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees






“Stop the war”


“Israel and the international community are assuming their humanitarian responsibilities toward the Palestinians of Gaza”