The Lawyer On The Gaza Front Line
For New Zealand lawyer Hector Sharp a role with the United Nations as a self-described humanitarian lawyer did not necessarily involve being in the white-hot centre of the world’s hottest hot spot, but the Gaza-based lawyer is currently in the midst the action now.
The evacuation of the UN headquarters in Gaza, following Israel’s call for civilians to leave the city, was a “very very frightening” situation according to an RNZ report.
Sharp, the son of leading New Zealand mediator Geoff Sharp is Head of the Field Legal Office in Gaza and a humanitarian lawyer who has been working in the region for over three years.
The Gaza Field Officer is the UN’s largest field presence with 13,000 staff, 286 schools, 22 health clinics and a food distribution programme serving 1.2 million people.
Sharp has previously been a legal intern with the UN in New York after graduating with law degrees from the University of Melbourne and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
He also spent nearly three years working for Norton Rose Fulbright in Dubai handling international disputes and compliance law issues.
Originally from Wellington, Sharp has been working with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), largely funded by donations from UN member states and handling a range of issues affecting the refugees in the region.
The UN operate a significant legal team including those providing humanitarian and human rights legal support, dispute resolution and other roles.
But the Gaza conflict has changed Sharp’s role dramatically, seeing him focus on the safety of civilians, now fleeing to the south of the area under Israeli command, and documenting damage that has occurred following the terror attacks by Hamas upon Israel.
Over the weekend, 34 trucks loaded with essential medical and food supplies managed to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing from the Egyptian side. The region had been virtually inaccessible due to the damage inflicted during the bombings along the Gaza border, which hampered the delivery of crucial aid.
His work in the UN legal department has been dealing with the complexities of international humanitarian and administrative law but the Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent bombardment of the narrow territory by Israel has created a situation of unprecedented terror.
However, as the conflict intensified, his role shifted towards ensuring the safety of civilians and documenting instances of collateral damage.
“All non-essential work halts, and we concentrate entirely on the conflict. This includes making sure both sides involved in the conflict are aware of the locations of our institutions and facilities, ensuring they adhere to their obligations under international law not to target or strike UN premises.”
Sharp highlighted the pressing need for humanitarian aid.
“We currently have over 400,000 internally displaced persons in our shelters and institutions, but the situation regarding aid is dire. It’s uncertain when assistance will arrive. We are on the ground here, while a whole different game is being played on the political stage. Our headquarters are engaged in political matters, but the primary focus must be on lifting the siege on Gaza,” the RNZ report said.
Sharp stressed that the existing fuel was already being rationed to the limit, and any further reductions could lead to a dire situation. He expressed hope that the recent convoys of aid would mark the beginning of a sustained flow of much-needed support.
“It escalated the conflict very quickly. It was a general evacuation, so we’re talking about over 1,000,000 people being asked to evacuate within a very short period, which obviously caused panic.
Regarding the evacuation of the UN Gaza headquarters when Israel issued the call for civilians to leave Gaza City in anticipation of a “significant operation,” Sharp said, “It was, to be honest, a very, very frightening situation. The conflict escalated rapidly, as it was a general evacuation, involving over a million people asked to leave within a very short time, causing significant panic.”
He pointed out that the UN was better equipped to evacuate its personnel and staff than the general population due to access to armed vehicles, security experts, logisticians, and supplies. However, Sharp also mentioned colleagues and friends who were trapped in Gaza, some with injured children and elderly family members, making it a distressing situation to witness.
“Safety is relative here, I believe. I was at a school this morning when a woman pulled me aside and told me in perfect English, ‘this is not safe.’ This message is coming through loud and clear. People here are desperately seeking safety, which is why they turn to our schools. It’s vital that we maintain secure facilities for those in need.”
Amidst the horrors of the conflict, he emphasized that Gaza is not always defined by the current crisis.
“Before coming here, I read the headlines, watched the news like everyone else. But when I moved here, it was a different story. Gaza has life; there’s a surf club, there’s a cycling club. I used to go for a run every morning along the security zone. There is life here, and it’s painful to witness it diminishing during the present situation. What happened here was horrific.”