Ban Ki-moon, Gaza and the little plane that could…

January 15, 2009

It’s not easy being the secretary-general of the United Nations.

For three weeks, the South Korean U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has been urging Israel and Hamas militants in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza Strip to stop their fighting.  He has described himself as “deeply alarmed” and said he “deplores” the latest war to erupt in the Middle East. Ban said it has caused an “unbearable” number of casualties – over 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died since the war began on Dec. 27.

But his appeals – backed by a legally binding U.N. Security Council resolution urging an immediate ceasefire – have fallen on deaf ears.  The Israeli offensive has intensified and Hamas militants have continued to fire rockets at southern Israel.

That is not the only problem dogging Ban on his week-long tour of the Middle East, which he described as “a mission of peace”.  The U.N. plane assigned to carry Ban, his aides, and a throng of reporters and their gear is too small.

It was clear that the group needed a bigger plane when we left Cairo for the Jordanian capital Amman on Wednesday.  The luggage hold was so overwhelmed by suitcases and television gear that the flight crew had to cram luggage under nearly every seat in the narrow aircraft, which seats just over 50 passengers.

Journalists and U.N. officials complained about the lack of leg room, but we survived the flight and landed safely in Jordan.

The situation worsened overnight with the arrival of yet another television crew with all their gear (but minus their personal luggage which ended up somewhere else on the Eurasian continent). While we were waiting to board the plane for the brief flight to Israel, U.N. officials warned reporters that there were safety concerns.  There may be too much luggage and too many people for the tiny plane, they said.  Sitting in the VIP lounge at Amman airport, we wondered if the secretary-general’s hopes of bringing his peace mission to the leaders of Israel might be dashed from the start – or at least seriously delayed.

But the fears of those in doubt were misplaced – for this was the little plane that could.

After a brief delay during which the Canadian crew stuffed baggage into every nook and cranny of the little aircraft, Ban’s entourage was marched onto the tarmac and seated on the plane.  We were pleasantly surprised that the resourceful Canadians had managed to restore most of the legroom throughout the plane.

Soon we were in the air, headed for Ben Gurion airport.  Some 45 minutes later we landed in Israel, where we said goodbye to the little plane and Ban Ki-moon told Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak once again that it was time to end their offensive in the Gaza Strip.

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It’s refreshing to see atleast some organizations skip VIP flights.