United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today demanded that Israel and Hamas halt their acts of violence, take all necessary measures to avoid civilian casualties, and that Israel keep open all border crossings necessary for the continued provision of humanitarian supplies to Gaza.
“A ceasefire must be declared immediately,” Mr. Ban said in a statement he himself read to the news media. “They must also curb their inflammatory rhetoric. Only then can dialogue start.”
He faulted regional and international partners for not doing enough. “They should do more. They should use all possible means to end the violence and encourage political dialogue, emphasizing peaceful ways of resolving differences,” he said.
At the same time, other world leaders must also step up efforts to support a longer term resolution of the issue, he added.
“I expect all parties to fully heed my call,” he declared. “In particular, Israel must keep opening all border crossings necessary for the continued provision of humanitarian supplies. The Israeli Government leaders have given me a guarantee that such supplies and personnel would be allowed entry into Gaza. This cooperation must continue on a rolling basis in the coming days,” Mr. Ban stressed.
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told a news conference after Mr. Ban’s statement that 60 truckloads of supplies had been allowed into Gaza today, including four with medical supplies. He said there were “just about enough supplies” in Gaza at the moment, but if the number of casualties increases humanitarian efforts could be overwhelmed.
UN officials said at least 62 of the 320 Gazans killed so far in the Israeli air strikes were women and children, but they did not yet know how many men killed were civilians. Some 1,400 people have been injured. In a video link-up from Gaza, UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd said civilian casualties could be much higher.
“The scale of casualties on the Palestinian side reflects the fact that however hard you try to target, in circumstances such as those of Gaza with a large population in a small area, civilian casualties are almost impossible to avoid,” Mr. Holmes said.
Reiterating Mr. Ban’s condemnation of the excessive use of force, Mr. Holmes said international humanitarian law demanded a “proportionate response and very clear distinction between combatants and civilians, and it’s very hard to say that this is what’s happening in the present attacks on Gaza, although of course we also know that the [Hamas] rockets themselves are indiscriminate in their effects.”
The UN has protested to Israel “in the strongest possible terms” over collateral deaths and damage at two UN buildings, expressing deep concern about the safety of UN personnel and installations and requesting “specific and immediate undertakings regarding their security.”
Eight students aged 18 to 20 at an UNRWA training centre who were waiting for UN buses to take them home were killed and 19 injured on Saturday from the blast of a missile that targeted policemen standing near a government building. Also, the Gaza headquarters of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) was damaged today when the adjacent presidential guesthouse was hit, and seven vehicles were totally or partially destroyed.
“UN premises must be protected and inviolate,” UNSCO said in a statement. “The Government of Israel has all coordinates of UN premises in Gaza. These strikes occurred without prior warning. Military attacks in these circumstances, so close to UN premises as to recklessly endanger UN personnel and property, must not be repeated.”
Mr. Ban noted that he had repeatedly condemned rocket attacks by Hamas militants against Israel, which Israel has cited as the reason for its present operation. “While recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, I have also condemned the excessive use of force by Israel in Gaza,” he said. “The sufferings caused to civilian populations as a result of the large-scale violence and destruction that have taken place over the past few days has saddened me profoundly.
“The frightening nature of what is happening on the ground, in particular, its effects on children who are more than half of the population troubles me greatly. I have continuously stressed the need for strict observance of international humanitarian law.”
Mr. Ban deplored injury and damage to UN premises and personnel as well as to others associated with UN programmes. “All this must stop,” he declared.
Noting that Arab Foreign Ministers will meet soon in emergency session, he urged them “to act swiftly and decisively to bring an early end to this impasse.”
He said he had consulted with various international leaders on the escalation of violence, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
“I reiterate my call that unhindered access should be ensured for the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Mr. Ban stressed.
“The United Nations, through the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and other agencies on the ground have been in continuous contact with all relevant authorities and mobilizing themselves to provide much needed assistance and alleviate civilian suffering.”
Mr. Holmes said the UN had no intention of pulling staff out at the moment.
Asked if UNRWA had any contingency plans should Israel launch ground operations into Gaza, Ms. AbuZayd said UNRWA had no reserves or stocks on hand because of Israel’s closure of crossing points in recent months, but she thought Israel would help the agency bring in supplies because “they say that, no matter what they do, they do want to make sure that there’s no humanitarian disaster or catastrophe and want to serve the humanitarian needs of the people.”