31 December 2008 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “on full alert” as he intensifies diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire in the Gaza fighting, his spokesperson said today, as other United Nations officials voiced disappointment that Israel has so far rejected the idea of a 48-hour lull.
Mr. Ban is “continuing to work the phones,” speaking with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday and the foreign ministers of Brazil and Canada today, spokesperson Marie Okabe told a news conference, as the surge of Israeli air strikes on Gaza and Hamas rocket attacks into Israel entered its fifth day.
“He will be on full alert over the coming days as he continues to do what he can to work towards a ceasefire,” she said, as humanitarian officials painted a grim picture of the situation in Gaza with many people facing “a life or death situation,” grave shortages of vital supplies such as food, and fuel-starved hospitals confronting their largest ever trauma caseloads.
“We’re obviously very disappointed that the proposal for a 48-hour lull or ceasefire, whatever you want to call it, has been rejected but we hope that diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire will bear some fruit in the coming days,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told the same news conference.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted by media reports as saying conditions were not yet ripe for a ceasefire since they had not yet reached the point of promising safety in southern Israel which has been targeted by increasingly longer-range Hamas missiles from Gaza.
Speaking by video link from Gaza, UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd portrayed the deep disappointment felt by ordinary Gazans.
“This is something that had gone round the public in the markets and so on for those people who are venturing out and they were very disappointed because they’d been rather cheerful, thinking ‘oh good, it’s going to stop for a couple of days at least and we’ll get things in and we’ll have a little bit of peace from the noise of the bombs and the noise of the drones overhead,’” she said.
She noted the traumatic effect the air strikes were having on the civilian population, with some parents trying to quiet their alarmed children by telling them the bombs were the sounds of wedding celebrations.
Ms. AbuZayd said she was not optimistic over the prospects for a ceasefire.
Mr. Holmes said it was difficult to get reliable figures on casualties, which have ranged from 320 to 380 dead and 1,500 to 1,900 wounded. Ms. AbuZayd estimated “conservatively” that a quarter of the dead were civilians, with 41 children and probably the same number of women killed. Four Israelis have been reported killed by Hamas rockets.
“This is a very bloody operation by anybody’s standards, even by the standards of that part of the world, and it’s hard to exaggerate the degree of constant fear felt by those in Gaza in particular as the attacks continue every 20 minutes or so in many cases both during the day and during the night,” Mr. Holmes said.
“Of course there is stress on the Israeli side, too, because of the constant threat of rockets which continue to fall, and falling in new towns and cities as the range increases,” he added, appealing to all parties to respect international humanitarian law, in particular the distinction between combatants and civilians, and responding in a proportionate way to any attacks.
“That’s conspicuous mostly by its absence so far. But apart from that, the biggest need remains an immediate ceasefire, one that is fully respected by all sides so that we can have the chance to get humanitarian goods in a more systematic way and to deal with all the casualties and damage that’s happened so far.”
Israel has closed most crossing points into Gaza, citing the rockets attacks, but some 60 truckloads of food, medicines and other supplies were allowed through today. That compares with over 125 a day in October, and 475 a day in May 2007. The fuel pipeline remains closed and Gaza power station had to shut down yesterday. Mr. Holmes said Israeli military and civilian authorities had been cooperative “but we need to see more results,” with the major needs remaining food, medical supplies, fuel and cash.
Ms. AbuZayd said the Israeli authorities were very good in checking what UNRWA needs. “They’ve been very good lately to let us bring in whatever we say we need. Our problem is more that there’s no capacity to bring in everything we need,” she added, also noting that Israel warns the agency if there are going to be air strikes near where its workers are operating.
Earlier today UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory Maxwell Gaylard said it was essential that Karni, larger than the currently open Keren Shalom crossing, be opened to bring in wheat since UNRWA had none left for the 750,000 people who need it, warning, “we are in a life or death situation for many people.
“We need fuel to the power station so that the power plant goes back on. Gaza’s hospitals are facing their largest ever trauma caseloads under some of the most adverse conditions imaginable. They must have reliable power,” he said.
“We are in hourly contact with the Israeli authorities. They are offering their cooperation and we are offering ours. They have been responsive to specific requests, which we appreciate. But the gravity of the situation now demands more. Today, we need that cooperation translated into real results on the ground.”
UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy called on all parties to commit to an immediate ceasefire. “The situation in Gaza is unbearable for the civilian population and especially for children. They are trapped within the conflict and deprived of their fundamental human rights. Children are victims of the bombings and traumatized by the escalation of violence. The access to humanitarian aid, basic services, education, and medical assistance is severely hampered,” she said.