United Nations humanitarian agencies working in the occupied Palestinian territory are alarmed at developments following Israel’s incursion into Gaza, where innocent civilians including children have been killed in actions that have brought increased misery to hundreds of thousands of people and will wreak far-reaching harm on Palestinian society.
“An already alarming situation in Gaza, with poverty rates at nearly 80 per cent and unemployment at nearly 40 per cent, is likely to deteriorate rapidly, unless immediate and urgent action is taken,” they said in a joint statement issued at the weekend.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which works with 980,000 refugees, warned that Gaza is on the brink of a public health disaster. Since the Israeli strike on Gaza’s only power plant on 28 June, the entire strip is without electricity for between 12 and 18 hours every day.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan has voiced increasing alarm in several statements in recent days, calling on both sides to “pull back from the brink,” and for an immediate halt to the “disproportionate use of force by Israel” as well as the release of an Israeli Army Corporal captured by Palestinian militants and the cessation of rocket fire into Israel.
UNRWA warned that the water utility is now relying on its own backup generators and its daily operation has been cut by two thirds leading to shortages and a critical situation at sewage plants. With restrictions on humanitarian supply lines there is now a backlog of over 230 containers of food awaiting delivery at the border crossing.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the public health system is facing an unprecedented crisis, with the current stock of fuel for back-up generators likely to run out within two weeks. In the last week, there has been a 160 per cent increase in cases of diarrhoea compared with the same period last year and the agency predicts that 23 per cent of the essential drug list will be out of stock within a month.
The World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that in June 70 per cent of the Gaza population was already unable to cover their daily food needs without aid. Flour mills, food factories and bakeries, reliant on electricity, are being forced to reduce production, while lack of refrigeration is resulting in high food losses. It called for a humanitarian corridor to ensure the arrival for relief items.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said children are living in an environment of extraordinary violence, insecurity and fear and the ongoing fighting is hurting them psychologically. Caregivers say children are showing signs of distress and exhaustion, including a 15 to 20 per cent increase in bedwetting, due to shelling and sonic booms.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that while Israel has legitimate security concerns, international humanitarian law requires that the principles of proportionality and distinction between civilians and combatants be respected at all times.
The prohibition on targeting civilians is also being violated by Palestinian armed groups, launching missiles from the Gaza Strip into Israel, and must therefore end, it added.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is calling for the continuous and unimpeded access for relief aid and fuel supplies and for Israel to repair the damage done to the power station. OCHA fears the humanitarian situation could easily deteriorate, with continued Israeli military operations and artillery shelling, which could damage remaining infrastructure and essential services.
“Unless urgent action is taken, we are facing a humanitarian crisis that will have far reaching consequences for the communities we work in and the institutions we work through,” the joint statement concluded.