REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
11 July 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), World Trade Organization, Meteorological Organization (WMO), Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The Situation in Gaza
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the Office was extremely concerned about the growing humanitarian emergency in Gaza, after Israel’s launch of the military operation, called ‘Protective Edge’, on 7 July. It was recalled that the stated objective of the operation was to stop Palestinian rockets being fired at southern Israel. The consolidated report from Gaza was from mid afternoon local time yesterday. It said that since the operation began, 58 Palestinian civilians had been killed in Gaza, this included 32 women and children. In addition 570 Palestinians had been injured. At the same time five health facilities in Gaza had suffered damages because of air strikes carried out near to them. This included the Gaza European hospital, where a nurse was injured. The intensive care unit and the pediatric ward had been evacuated. Israeli forces had carried out hundreds of aerial and navy bombardments over the past days. In most cases before the attacks residents had been warned either by telephone or warning missiles to leave the targeted buildings. More than 340 housing units in Gaza had been severely damaged or completely destroyed. As a result, more than 2,000 people had been displaced or were now sheltering with neighbours, friends or family, most of them urgently needed basic household items such as blankets and mattresses because their homes had been destroyed.
Aid workers on the ground reported that people in Gaza were gripped by fear, the streets were empty and the shops closed. Agencies that worked to provide psychosocial reports had been able to carry out some limited assessments and reported that an initial 675 children required urgent, specialized psychosocial support to be able to cope with the situation. The work of humanitarian organizations had clearly been hampered by the ongoing military operation. An emergency operation centre managed by OCHA had been set up at the United Nations Development Programme compound in Gaza to coordinate the humanitarian response by agencies on the ground there. Meanwhile, from inside Gaza, Palestinian armed groups had likewise fired hundreds of missiles against southern Israel including against urban areas. However, most had fallen in open areas or been intercepted by Israeli defense systems. But the civilian population there was living in fear, humanitarian staff had reported, especially women and children, with dozens having been treated for shock. Humanitarian partners, particularly those working on protection of civilians were calling for immediate respect of international humanitarian law, including prohibition from targeting civilians and civilian objects, and against indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.
Ms. Momal-Vanian added that the briefing by the Secretary-General to the Security Council yesterday, describing the situation, renewed the call for a de-escalation and a return to calm and a ceasefire understanding, was available for those that had not already seen it. In response to a question on whether there was any information as to whether the Security Council would act and if so, how, Ms. Momal-Vanian said that this was entirely in the hands of Member States. The Secretary-General in any case had clearly described the situation and called for urgent action by the international community. Responding to a question on whether there was a discrepancy in the language of the Secretary-General, requiring restraint from Israel whilst reiterating condemnation the rocket attacks, Ms. Momal-Vanian drew attention to the entirety of the declaration made, which clearly stated “The excessive use of force and endangering of civilian lives are intolerable and it is unacceptable for citizens on both sides to permanently live in fear of the next aerial attack.” The Secretary-General had also said that he was “also concerned at the many Palestinian deaths and injuries as a result of Israeli operations” and “continued to condemn the rising number of civilian lives lost in Gaza”. The statement spoke for itself.
With regards to a question on when new figures would be obtained, Mr. Laerke said that the report was a consolidated one, from all sources on the ground and there was obviously a process of consolidating figures and a cut off time, at 3 p.m. local time yesterday. This was a rapidly developing emergency. Another report was expected today but it was not known at what time. In response to a question as to what sort of contingency plan had been drawn if there was a ground assault, Mr. Laerke said that for now, humanitarian agencies were operating within the strategic response plan for the area, which was currently 42 per cent funded. It was asking USD 390 million. Obviously this plan was drawn before recent events and would probably be revised.
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the High Commissioner today had expressed alarm at the Israeli military operations resulting in the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, as well as the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. The High Commissioner appealed to all sides to abide by their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law. As the Secretary-General reported yesterday, at least 88 Palestinians including at least 21 children and 11 eleven women had been killed in Gaza as a result of Israeli strikes since the beginning of its operation ‘Protective Edge’ on Tuesday night. Reports also suggested that hundreds more had been injured and Israeli media reported that over 800 strikes had taken place since the operation began, with 60 on the morning of 10 July alone. Reports also indicated that from the start of the operation until midday yesterday Palestinian armed groups had fired a total of 809 rockets and 61 mortars. Media reports indicated that as of midday yesterday, 9 Israeli civilians had sustained injuries while fleeing to shelters. The High Commissioner warned Israel, Hamas and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza that they had been down this road before and it had only led to death, destruction, distrust and a painful prolongation of the conflict. This time around, once again, civilians were bearing the brunt of the conflict. All sides were urged to steadfastly respect their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, to protect civilians. In particular, attacks must not be directed against civilians or civilian objects, nor should military assets be located in densely populated areas or attacks launched from such areas. For its part, the Government of Israel had to take all possible measures to ensure full respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack during the conduct of hostilities, as required by international humanitarian law. In all circumstances, targeting of civilians had to be avoided. However, deeply disturbing reports had been received that many of the civilian casualties, including children, occurred as a result of strikes on homes. Such reports raised doubts about whether the Israeli air strikes had been in accordance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The targeting of civilian homes was a violation of international humanitarian law, unless these homes were being used for military purposes. In case of doubt, buildings ordinarily used for civilian purposes, such as homes, were presumed to not be legitimate military targets. Even if a home was identified as being used for military purposes, any attack must be proportionate, offer a prevailing military advantage in the prevailing circumstances at the time, and precautions had to be taken.
The High Commissioner urged all sides to ensure that every alleged breach of international law was promptly, independently, thoroughly and effectively investigated with a view to ensuring justice and reparation for victims. She expressed deep concern about the prospect of a ground offensive and strongly echoed the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire. It was high time that the leaders on all sides abandoned their poisonous rhetoric and deadly ‘tit-for-tat’ behaviour in favour of a peaceful resolution to this impasse. The High Commissioner had been to Gaza and Sderot herself, and seen how traumatic these air strikes and rocket attacks were on civilians, especially children. They had to stop.
In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the situation remained tense. The High Commissioner reiterated her call on all parties to address recent violations, including excessive use of force, arbitrary arrest and detention, destruction and damage to property, incitement to violence, and to ensure accountability for the crimes.
Ms. Momal-Vanian, responding to a question as to where the Liaison United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was based, clarified that it was based in Brussels. Perhaps it would be possible to organize a teleconference.