The humanitarian situation in Lebanon is dramatic: tens of thousands are fleeing the fighting; hundreds are wounded; and dozens die every day. I witnessed, at first hand, how the civilian population is caught in the crossfire. The destruction, the number of casualties, and the fear and terror inflicted by the continued air strikes was greater than I had expected. The situation, already terrible when I arrived in the region, last Sunday, got worse by the day. Beirut, just three weeks ago the vibrant symbol of Lebanon’s recovery from civil war, is now a virtual ghost town. Young people are thinking of leaving the country, as they have lost confidence in a peaceful future in Lebanon.
Lebanese and international humanitarian organizations are trying to come to the relief of as many people as possible. Today, another 10-truck United Nations convoy, painstakingly, made its way from Beirut to Saida and inland to Jezzine. What used to be a 1½-hour drive has now become a 6-hour ordeal, on totally clogged roads. We have established humanitarian corridors by land and by sea to Beirut as well as a notification channel to the Israeli forces to guarantee safe passage for the increasing number of our convoys. They provide urgently needed relief items to hundreds of thousands in the south of Lebanon and other areas such as the Bekaa Valley.
We are hoping to provide some 10,000 tons of relief supplies in the next month alone through these corridors, which I called for in my briefing to you last Friday and in my letters to the Israeli and Lebanese Governments of last week. That is provided there are no attacks on any of our convoys from any of the parties involved. The direct hit sustained by the United Nations post in Khiam, resulting in the tragic killing of our colleagues, has caused considerable anxiety among our relief workers. The hit took place despite repeated notifications and assurances to spare the post. If we agree on notification procedures with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), as we have, then we must be able to absolutely trust that the chain of command within IDF is working. Just this morning I have received reports that a non-United Nations relief convoy was hit in the south of Lebanon.
Yet it must be clear to all, the parties to the conflict and the members of the Security Council, that the limited and carefully controlled assistance we will be able to provide through this notification system with IDF is not enough to prevent the excessive suffering of the civilian population. We need an immediate cessation of hostilities, followed by a ceasefire agreement, the deployment of a security force, and the political settlement of the conflict, as proposed by the Secretary-General.
The level of displacement, primarily from southern Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut, has now reached approximately 700,000. An estimated 100,000 people are victims of the siege of their homes, towns and villages. Already, some 210,000 have fled Lebanon as refugees to the neighbouring Syrian Arab Republic and Cyprus. Among them are 115,000 third-country nationals, many of whom do not have the financial means to travel back to their home countries. Every day of fighting displaces tens of thousands more.
It was heartbreaking to visit some of these internally displaced persons in the Metn region of Lebanon, a Druze area. Several hundreds, 85 per cent of whom are women, children, and even babies, were cramped into a school with six toilets, each small classroom filled with some 20 people and the few belongings they were able to bring along. Already among the poorest, they have lost their belongings and are now faced with skyrocketing prices for basic goods. This small region alone is host to more than 250,000 displaced, of whom 67,000 are sheltered in schools, hospitals or community centres.
There, I also met some of the survivors from the village of Srifa in south Lebanon where 20 people died during the air strikes on 19 July. Their desperate appeal to me was that the bodies of their killed family members be recovered from the rubble of their homes. “We cannot sleep at night”, one woman said. “We have heard that the dogs are eating their bodies.” This is one of the cases I raised directly with the Israeli authorities, requesting their assistance in facilitating the recovery and burial of the bodies in accordance with Islamic tradition.
The civilian death toll in Lebanon stands now at more than 600, according to the Minister of Health. The majority are women and children. In the Dahiyeh suburb of south Beirut, a Hizbollah stronghold, I could see the devastating effects of 10 days of massive air strikes on a residential area. Apartment buildings of 6 to 10 storeys had been levelled, block by block. The rubble was covered with schoolbooks, children’s clothing, photographs, and other personal belongings.
I urged the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister of Israel in my meetings to review the conduct of the air strikes and bombardments to avoid excessive use of force that inflicts disproportionate suffering on the civilian population. When there are clearly more dead children than actual combatants, the conduct of hostilities must be reviewed.
At the same time, I repeatedly and publicly appealed from within Lebanon that the armed men of Hizbollah must stop their deplorable tactic of hiding ammunition, arms, or combatants among civilians. Using civilian neighbourhoods as human camouflage is abhorrent and in violation of international humanitarian law.
The ongoing air strikes have crushed civilian infrastructure in many parts of Lebanon. Airports, seaports, roads and bridges have been systematically destroyed. An example is the destruction of the Mdeirij Bridge, the highest in the Middle East, on the main highway connecting Beirut and Damascus. The bridge was the result of a four-year joint development venture with Italy and considered vital to the economy of Lebanon. The bridge was rendered unusable in the first days of the conflict and is now, just like the coastal highway from Beirut via Saida to Tyre, impossible to use, even for relief convoys. The damage to infrastructure is already estimated at billions of dollars and will severely hamper an early economic recovery of Lebanon from this conflict.