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Recovery in Gaza ‘is not only physical’, UN Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator says

Sigrid Kaag, Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza, said the immense suffering caused by months of bombardment must also be addressed. 

“I think it’s very hard for us, in the safety of the outside world, to even start to comprehend what people have been going through,” she told UN News

Nearly seven months have passed since Israel launched a military assault on Gaza in response to Hamas-led attacks on its territory that left some 1,200 people dead and another 250 taken as hostages. 

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, and more than 77,000 have been injured, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, said this week, citing the enclave’s health authorities. To date, 180 staff with UN agency UNRWA have also been killed.  

Ms. Kaag was in New York to address the UN Security Council, which established her position through resolution 2720, adopted last year, that calls for her to facilitate, coordinate, monitor and verify humanitarian relief consignments to Gaza. 

Briefing the Council on Thursday, she announced that a new mechanism for getting lifesaving aid into Gaza will start in the coming days – another provision of the Council resolution. 

Ahead of the meeting, Ms. Kaag spoke to UN News about these developments and her recent mission to Gaza, the fourth since her appointment in December.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Sigrid Kaag: The purpose of the mission was to really meet and talk and be as informed as possible as to the challenges and how we can make progress. It is in support also of all the humanitarian colleagues that are working day in, day out, in Gaza.

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What I saw in the different parts of Gaza we drove through was extensive destruction, speaking to people and hearing from them how they been impacted, hearing about their loss, their trauma. And of course, also how they even managed to cope under the very, very dire nearly dehumanising conditions the majority of Gazans are living under. 

The focus of the mission this time was on the health conditions in Gaza, and I was accompanied by a team from the World Health Organization (WHO). We visited Nasser Medical Complex, which had been totally rampaged on the inside. But, the medical director was already planning how he could get the hospital up and running, at least in very modest forms. I also visited the IMC Medical Field Hospital, where a lot of the seriously injured – including seriously injured and malnourished children – were being treated. 

So, speaking to patients, but also speaking to medical doctors, and again, being very moved and very humbled by the collective responsibility we all have to alleviate suffering and to try to work as much as possible not only to get humanitarian assistance in for it to reach people on a consistent and sustainable basis, but of course also to look beyond the horizon of the current crisis.

UN News: Security Council resolution 2720, which requested the establishment of your post, also requested the establishment of a mechanism to increase the volume of humanitarian aid getting into Gaza. Where do we stand on that? 

Sigrid Kaag: The resolution actually is most important in terms of two aspects: facilitation, acceleration, expedition of humanitarian assistance going into Gaza, and the second part is the establishment of a mechanism to support all that, and ultimately also in support of the collective efforts by the UN, international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), also Palestinian NGOs and the broader international community. In the last months, we have established an integrated database. We have negotiated routes, the so-called Jordan route. 

We have been working with others on the maritime corridor, but of course also harnessing the importance of the Egyptian route via Rafah to ensure that we have access points, that we can increase the volume and that we can actually track, notify and have a better sense of what will be going to Gaza in support of the priorities set by the Humanitarian Country Team. And then within Gaza, understand that it’s reaching people and it gets distributed in the optimal manner.

A mechanism is not a sacred entity. It is a platform in a way that provides visibility, helps prioritisation and gives data, and ultimately, it should smooth the process. So, we take away all the unnecessary delays, we know what’s happening, and it ultimately also provides for transparency that is very much needed.

UN News: You spoke of the possibility of a maritime corridor. What’s the latest on this? 

Sigrid Kaag: It is still very much a very active work in progress, but you may recall that in February, the United Nations committed myself, alongside a number of foreign ministers of committed countries, with the Government of Cyprus to say we see value in the additionality of the maritime corridor. 

We’re trying to see how this could be made to work. And on the UN side and the humanitarian actors inside Gaza, we have been exploring under which conditions and parameters the UN could be part of the receipt and distribution across Gaza. This has security considerations. It has obviously serious concerns around the safety and security of distribution, but also the safety and security of the civilian population.

A number of questions are being worked through. From the UN side, under the mechanism and my mission, we are hosting the Secretariat in support of the Member States that want to send cargo via Cyprus. There are monitors deployed in Cyprus, and we are supporting the process, I would say, from the start and hopefully also to the end point. 

This is an important route, however – and I’ve said it many times before – it is not a substitute to the importance of assistance in a future recovery and reconstruction goods reaching the Gaza Strip. It’s all about land, land and land, and this is our ultimate focus. But, additionality is welcome, given the complexity of the situation and the totality of needs, not only now, but also in the future.  

UN News: There’s heightened concern over the safety of humanitarians in Gaza, and humanitarians themselves have expressed their own concerns for their safety. What is being done to strengthen the deconfliction mechanism and ensure that they can do their job? 

Sigrid Kaag: It’s of course a horrendous situation where so many humanitarian workers, and the majority of them are Palestinians, have lost their lives. As in any situation of war and conflict, it’s always a big risk, and people risk their lives in the service of others. It is the most noble sacrifice, but we shouldn’t be in that position. 

Deconfliction has been a long ask and a long-standing and important topic of discussion and active negotiation. Deconfliction is a very sensitive and complex process, but it needs very clear understandings: communication, respect for the role of the humanitarian workers and agreements on how this is operated. 

This affects convoys and places of distribution. It affects very clear and very specific agreements that we have been negotiating with the Israeli authorities and, in particular, of course, where the Israeli Defence Forces has a key role to play.  

UN News: Focus is on the immediate humanitarian crisis at hand, but even as the war rages on, we’re seeing images that are beyond comprehension. Is it even possible to reconstruct Gaza at this point? 

Sigrid Kaag: Well, I think that’s perhaps a rhetorical question only we have the luxury to ask. I think we have the duty of care, we have the responsibility and we owe it to the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza to think and to be working closely with the Palestinian Authority. 

Of course, we – and the Secretary-General has stated this on numerous occasions – we hope for their speedy return to Gaza so that the institutions can lead on this process. The Palestinian Authority has a reform, has a plan for Gaza and obviously a lot of studies have been done. If it’s possible, I think it’s a very tall order if you look at the extent of the damage, even just looking at rubble removal and the need to reconstruct housing as soon as possible to get children back into school so we do not inflict a generation that has no access to schooling or proper education. 

For Palestinians, this has always been their pride and joy. So, I think it should be a rhetorical question. We have the duty and the responsibility to ensure that we start to work towards early recovery, think about the reconstruction and also the financing. I am acutely aware that it’s intrinsically tied to progress on the political front and the two-State solution. But, we cannot ask civilians to wait. Lives go on and people have suffered a lot.

A healthcare worker bandages a child's foot in at a hospital in Gaza.

A healthcare worker bandages a child’s foot in at a hospital in Gaza.

UN News: Speaking of people suffering, you said we have a duty to reconstruct Gaza, but also how can people who lived through these horrors get hope and continue with their lives? 

Sigrid Kaag: The healing of the soul is intrinsically personal. I think it’s very hard for us, in the safety of the outside world, to even start to comprehend what people have been going through. Children that are suddenly without a known living relative.

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Children who have had to suffer amputations without anaesthesia. Families that have lost their children, their homes, have been displaced multiple occasions. This, too, needs immediate attention. Recovery is not only physical. It is also support for the healing of the soul to somehow give trauma a space and a place. 

This is a baggage that people are asked to carry for life. But here, to my mind, this is where there should be an immense focus on mental health and psychosocial support. I’ve been asking a number of the counterparts I speak with to consider this aspect as important as food, shelter, water and all the other elements of the essential parts we need. Otherwise, you cannot be whole as a human being. This aspect needs special nurturing and special attention for many years to come. 

Whilst the Palestinians in Gaza have been ultimately very resilient, they need significant support. We need the experts. We need the psychologists, the psychiatrists. We need to train the trainers. But, an entire population is traumatised, so it’s very different. And it asks us, all of us also with a lot of expertise from within the region, to think and work very differently. We need to plan for that from now. 

But, if you ask today, the first ask of many Palestinians I speak to on my field visits is “give me dignity”. This is very complex, but we need to start very practically, but never forgetting about the soul, human beings and human dignity. This is equal for all of us, whomever we are, wherever we are. 

UN News: The people that you met on the ground who were telling you this, “give me dignity”, is there something that you can tell us that really touched you during this visit? 

Sigrid Kaag: To be honest, you feel in a way so humbled and so moved by all the different stories of suffering. It also makes you feel, at a certain stage, also quite helpless. Because we have words, and we work, but you want to do things right now, on the spot. 

But, we all have different roles and responsibilities. I met with a number of Palestinian NGOs, some of them who have been working there for decades in political and military situations. They were so committed, and I would say almost positively strident. 

My takeaway was that everything we do, Palestinian civil society needs to very much be on the forefront alongside the return of the Palestinian Authority because they know their people, they’ve been there, they have expertise and they’re already thinking. They already had ideas again to restart. Now, I think many people wouldn’t have the mental strength or the physical strength, so let’s not forget their immense courage and determination. And we need to cultivate that. We need to nurture it. 

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