UNITED NATIONS PALESTINE REFUGEE AGENCY CHIEF TELLS SECURITY COUNCIL
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Also Briefs
In a sombre briefing to the 15-member body via video conference from the beleaguered enclave, Pierre Krähenbühl reported that, in a hospital paediatric ward, he had seen injuries to children that were "the real and unacceptable consequence of an armed conflict waged with excessive — and at times disproportionate — force in densely populated urban settings".
In describing the situation, he drew attention to the artillery fire that had struck an elementary girls’ school in Jabalaya, believed to have come from the Israeli military. The school was a designated emergency shelter for displaced persons and its location well known to Israeli forces, he said, strongly condemning the attack as a serious violation of international law.
Noting the unacceptability of rocket fire on Israeli cities, he described three separate occasions in which UNRWA had found rockets belonging to armed groups in its empty facilities, immediately alerting all relevant parties each time. He strongly condemned placement of weapons in Agency facilities and said he was working to improve procedures to address such violations. Nonetheless, the discoveries did not justify attacks on UNRWA facilities.
The circumstances faced by Gaza’s internally displaced persons in shelters were increasingly dire as the ongoing hostilities severely restricted the Agency’s ability to mitigate the situation. He was also concerned about the Israeli military’s recent instruction to residents of Gaza City and Khan Younis to evacuate their homes, because UNRWA could not accommodate them. He stressed that further large-scale displacements would, under international humanitarian law, be the direct responsibility of the occupying Power.
“Even war has rules,” Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the Council, also via video conference. The world, she said, watched in horror as events unfolded. Gazans sought refuge wherever they could, fleeing to areas they deemed safe, but those had become fewer and further between. Indeed, she said, "the reality of Gaza today is that no place is safe".
She underlined that parties to the conflict had an "absolute obligation" to protect civilians from indirect or indiscriminate attacks, stressing the inviolability of United Nations operations, personnel and premises. Finally, there “could be no justification for failing” to protect humanitarian workers.
She outlined work being done by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), noting the difficulties they faced due to fighting going on around them, and called for urgent provision of funding to the United Nations family. Adequate assistance could not be provided without an urgent injection of funds, she said.
The meeting began at 10:08 a.m. and ended at 10:28 a.m.
Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefing the Council via video conference from Trinidad and Tobago, said that more than 80 per cent of Gaza's 1.8 million residents had relied on humanitarian aid even before the outbreak of hostilities. Since the conflict erupted, more than 80 per cent of those killed were civilians, including 251 children. Fifty-nine Israelis had been killed, with dozens more injured. Up to 440,000 people in the Gaza Strip were displaced and more than 240,000 were being hosted at United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools. Others sought refuge wherever they could. People often fled to areas they deemed safe, but such areas were becoming harder to find, given the compact size of the Strip. Due to the blockade, most could not leave the enclave, even for urgent medical attention.
In addition, she reported, dozens of United Nations’ facilities had come under attack, including an UNRWA school where 19 people had been killed. The United Nations had lost seven staff members and many other humanitarian workers had been killed, she said, adding, "the reality of Gaza today is that no place is safe". The parties to the conflict had an "absolute obligation" to protect civilians from indirect or indiscriminate attacks. United Nations operations, personnel and premises must remain inviolable and the warring parties must protect humanitarian workers. "There could be no justification for failing to do so," she stressed.
Homes, infrastructure and public works had been destroyed, while two out of the three United Nations compounds in Gaza had been damaged, she informed Council members. Medical facilities had not been spared, including some that had been hit multiple times. Gaza's only power plant had been struck and many areas had limited or no electricity. The immediate, medium- and long-term impact of the conflict on public works could not be overstated. She was deeply concerned about the possible contamination of water systems.
The United Nations was working to meet increasing humanitarian needs, she said, and that included efforts by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to provide food and medical services. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was delivering paediatric drugs and providing psychological support. Fighting hampered the ability of humanitarian workers to move around and until a long-term ceasefire was put in place, it would remain difficult to reach those in need. A ceasefire was needed to care for the injured, recover the dead and provide civilians with a reprieve to restock their homes. The Israeli Government, Hamas and other militant groups must comply with their international legal obligations and be held accountable to international standards, and not to the standards of the other party.
The world had watched in horror as events unfolded in Gaza, including the desperate situation of children there, she said, adding that "even war has rules". Funding was urgently required, with the United Nations family appealing for additional resources. Adequate assistance could not be provided without an urgent injection of funds. The violence must be stopped. The people of Gaza wanted to live in safety, security and dignity; the people of Israel wanted the same. "I hope the international community can help them to achieve it," she concluded.
PIERRE KRÄHENBÜHL, Commissioner General, UNRWA, speaking via video conference in Gaza, said eight Agency staff had lost their lives since the start of hostilities. He had seen first-hand in the past two days the damage done to neighbourhoods and essential infrastructure. In a paediatric ward, he saw "the real and unacceptable consequence of an armed conflict waged with excessive — and at times disproportionate — force in densely populated urban settings".
An elementary girls school in Jabalaya had been struck by artillery fire, he went on, adding that UNRWA had assessed the strike as have come from the Israeli military. The school had been designated as an emergency shelter for displaced people and its precise coordinates had been communicated to the Israeli military on 17 separate occasions. The people sheltering there had been instructed by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes and were seeking shelter. He called for an immediate investigation by Israel into the attack, which he condemned strongly as a serious breach of international law. The fact that it was the second such attack on a school sheltering displaced people made the call more urgent.
At the same time, he reported, UNRWA had found rockets belonging to armed groups in empty UNRWA facilities on three separate occasions, and each time, had immediately alerted all relevant parties. He strongly condemned the placement of weapons in UNRWA facilities and said he was working to improve procedures to address such violations. Nonetheless, he stressed, the discoveries did not justify attacks on UNRWA facilities.
The number of internally displaced persons was growing daily, he said, with 220,000 people currently displaced. That number was four times higher than the peak number of displaced people in the 2008-2009 conflict, and UNRWA was doing everything to provide them with minimum needs. Conditions were increasingly dire in shelters, with hygiene especially worrying. Pregnant women and newborn babies were being sheltered in appalling conditions, while the ongoing hostilities severely restricted the Agency’s ability to mitigate the situation.
He expressed concern about additional displacement, because UNRWA could not accommodate more people. He was particularly concerned about the Israeli military's recent instruction to residents in neighbourhoods of Gaza City and Khan Younis to evacuate their homes and he appealed to the international community to help address the extreme situation. Further large-scale displacements would, according to international humanitarian law, be the direct responsibility of the occupying Power. The current reality in Gaza was unsustainable and the political and humanitarian costs grew daily as infrastructure was destroyed and international law violated. He underlined that rocket fire on Israeli cities was unacceptable and had to cease.
It was past time for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, he said, adding that even that was not enough. Notwithstanding Israel's legitimate security concerns, the illegal blockade of Gaza must be lifted because the situation could become unliveable within just a few years. Urgent international steps were needed to ensure security for the entire region.