John Ging is no stranger to conflict. As director of the Gaza-based United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) since 2006, the former officer in the Irish army has drawn frequent criticism from Israel and its advocates, and has also been the target of assassination attempts by Islamic militants.
So he wasn’t particularly fazed this week, when Columbia University’s J Street-affiliated student group, under pressure from Barnard-Columbia Hillel, abruptly withdrew sponsorship of his Sunday night appearance on the campus. Hillel, of which the group is a member organization, insisted the event include a moderator, but a mutually agreeable one could not be found in time.
Ging, in New York as part of a national campus tour sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based J Street Education Fund, spoke anyway, sponsored by six non-Jewish student organizations; an estimated 150 people attended.
On a break from his tour, which included an invitation-only event at New York University’s Hillel, and speeches in Chicago and Washington, Ging spoke with The Jewish Week about his efforts to “reach out” and “correct misunderstandings” about UNRWA.

Q:What has been the focus of your speeches here?

A: The message I’m bringing from Gaza is not to focus just on the challenges, which are huge, but I’m asking for more emphasis on the people, especially the children, and what can we do to help contribute to their development.

How do you respond to allegations that UNRWA allowed Hamas to wage attacks from UN facilities during Operation Cast Lead?

There is a video image [circulating on the Internet] of rockets being fired from an UNRWA school, with the inference that we’re engaged with or supportive of such activities … If it were shown in its completed form, it would show we had to evacuate that school in a hail of gunfire because it was in the middle of the conflict zone and caught up in the crossfire. Yes, the militants went in and occupied it as a base [after it was evacuated], and a few hours later the Israelis came in and used it as a base. Later we protested to everyone. I’ve invited the Israeli military to present the full video.

What about allegations that UNRWA staff members have been involved in terrorist activities?

We have a staff of 11,500 so of course we’re vulnerable to being betrayed. The question is what systems are in place to prevent. The last time we were betrayed, we fired the supervisors and told them if they didn’t know, they should have, and if they did know, they should have told us. Our staff’s job is to deliver humanitarian services for the UN. They sign every year a statement that they won’t be engaged in anything else whether they’re on duty or off duty. We have a zero tolerance policy.

I understand you’ve had to step up your security after two assassination attempts by Islamist extremists.

It’s part of the dynamics of working in a conflict zone. If we’re succeeding, if we’re having robust policies, if we’re seriously working on an international agenda for peace, tolerance, understanding and countering extremism, that’s obviously going to generate a reaction from extremists … This year, because our summer recreation programs were so successful and put such an emphasis on the participation of girls we angered extremists who see this as insensitivity toward the ‘culture of Palestine’ and they burnt down a number of locations.

Do you support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and how do you feel about the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement?

The last time I was in the States I attended a celebration for Israel’s independence day with the Israelis at the UN. They know I’m pro-Israel. I celebrate Israel’s independence … It’s a concern that those representing themselves as pro-Palestinian are now linking that to anti-Israel sentiment and policies like divestment and boycott. I oppose that … The people of Israel need efforts to rebuild confidence that peace can be brought about. Talking about sanctions and boycotts is not going to bring about anything positive …