16 January 2009 – On the third day of his intensive diplomatic mission to secure a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon conferred today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah, and called on Israel to unilaterally cease hostilities.
“We have no time to lose,” he told reporters after his meetings in the West Bank on the 21st day of the offensive Israel launched with the stated aim of halting Hamas rocket attacks against it from Gaza. “A unilateral declaration of a ceasefire would be necessary at this time.” He said he would exert his utmost efforts to realize that goal and underscored his full support for President Abbas’s leadership.
“There is increasing hope that flows from the intensive political discussions that are going on, not least by our Secretary-General, which is much appreciated here on the ground,” a top UN official in Gaza reported, speaking to journalists in New York by video link from ground zero from where he has been giving daily briefings on the death and destruction.
“Let’s keep the urgency and momentum moving, because if there were a briefing tomorrow I am sorry to say there are people alive including children right now who will be dead, so that is where the imperative lies, we have to get the ceasefire because every hour that passes without a ceasefire is costing the lives of innocent civilians here,” Gaza Director of Operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) John Ging said.
As of noon New York time the death toll stood at 1,115 dead, including 370 children, with 5,150 wounded, 1,745 of them children, according to Gazan health ministry figures, which UN officials call credible. Mr. Ging said 4,000 more people had fled their homes in the last 24 hours to seek shelter in UN schools, bringing the total to 49,000. Hundreds of thousands of others are estimated to have sought refuge with relatives and friends in less conflict-hit areas of Gaza.
After meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem last night, Mr. Ban told reporters the Israeli Government would make an important decision on a ceasefire and he hoped it would be the right one, with Israel showing the world that it is a responsible member of the UN, abiding by Security Council resolutions. Last week the Council called for an immediate ceasefire.
Following his stop in Ramallah, Mr. Ban travelled to Ankara to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, stressing his determination to work with the Turkish Government to help find solutions to the terrible crisis in Gaza. At the weekend he will go to Lebanon and Syria for talks with Government officials in both countries about the violence in Gaza and southern Israel, before attending the Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait on Monday.
Mr. Ging said UNRWA, which aids 750,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza, about half the population, is establishing alternative warehouses and is “up and running again” after Israeli shells destroyed the warehouse in its main compound yesterday, sending hundreds of tons of food and medicine up in flames. The fire continued to burn today. “Massive devastation and destruction” was reported in the area of the compound, he added.
The Agency is getting to most of those in need but there are still areas in the north of the Gaza Strip that are cut off. “It is an issue of major concern to us,” he said.
Describing the situation on the ground, Mr. Ging stressed that it was “really terrible” that patients in hospitals come under fire, adding that innumerable numbers of people are living in shock. UNRWA is preparing to help traumatized children when they return to school.
“People are in mortal danger here in the Gaza Strip, and have been for the last 21 days and nights and the casualty figures bear that out. At the moment there is a glimmer of hope. They are bewildered, shell-shocked and in real fear but they are grasping at this latest round of diplomatic efforts in the hope that this might end,” he said.
“I myself would never have predicted what has happened in full view of the whole world over these past 21 days and nights, but it has happened and continues right now, but I am hopeful, not least because of the efforts of our Secretary-General, which is there for all to see, and I wish others would join him in the degree of commitment and pro-activity that he is bringing to bear.”
Asked what was the most outrageous scene he had witnessed, Mr. Ging replied: “Of course, it’s always the dead children and it’s very traumatic to see that, and it’s equally traumatic to see children who are still alive but whose lives have been ruined, multiple amputees. The most traumatic sight of this conflict is visible in the morgues and in the hospitals.
“And each and every one of those cases is of course for the individuals and their families massively traumatic and life-altering, in most of them because of the horrific nature of the injuries, they’re not just a flesh wound.”
UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory Max Gaylard said the situation for hospitals, medical workers and the injured was alarming and deteriorating, stressing that hospitals must be protected and remain neutral areas under any circumstances. In a statement, he noted that 13 health workers had been killed and 22 injured, and 16 health facilities and 16 ambulances damaged or destroyed since the start of the Israeli military operation.
Meanwhile, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) reported that 69 truckloads of goods were allowed entry into Gaza from Israel today, including 26 trucks for UNRWA with flour, blankets, rice and bread, and one truck of medical supplies for the UN World Health Organization (WHO). At the Rafah crossing with Egypt, nearly 15 truckloads of food and medical and relief supplies passed through and 18 medical cases were evacuated.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) reported that, in addition to its regular caseload of some 250,000 Gazans, it delivered canned meat and high energy biscuits to 13 Gaza hospitals, enough for 6,000 patients and staff for up to one month. WFP is also distributing ready-to-eat food to overcome the scarcity of cooking gas.