Ambulances and medical workers in Gaza are facing increasing difficulty in reaching the wounded, some are being killed in doing so, and a “humanitarian breathing space” is vital to ensure that food and medical supplies reach those in need as Israel’s offensive entered its 10th day, the top United Nations relief official in the area said today.
“Large numbers of people including many children are hungry, they are cold, they are without ready access to medical facilities, they are without access to electricity and running water, above all they are terrified. That by any measure is a humanitarian crisis,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory Maxwell Gaylard told a news briefing in Jerusalem.
“There is an overall atmosphere of fear. More than half of the population are children. The spectre of internal displacement is emerging with growing numbers seeking shelter and already there are several thousand civilians in UNRWA’s seven shelters,” he said, referring to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
The UN has raised its concerns with the Israeli authorities at the highest levels, in particular the need for humanitarian access for fuel and food into the Gaza Strip and medical patients leaving the Strip, he added, noting: “We are receiving regular cooperation from those authorities. They are in contact with us not just on a day-to-day basis but even more regularly and we are in contact with them.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a staff meeting at UN Headquarters in New York that the situation in Gaza and southern Israel has worsened dramatically in the past 48 hours since Israel added a ground offensive to its air attacks. Civilian suffering was already alarming but the ground operation has only made it worse, he said.
The UN estimates that Palestinian deaths have reached 500 and are rising, and some 2,500 have been injured in the offensive which Israel says it launched to end Hamas rocket attacks against its southern cities and towns.
Mr. Ban, who is meeting with members of the Security Council, which was unable to reach a consensus during an emergency session on Saturday to bring about an end to the violence, as well as with Arab leaders, has already spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to voice his extreme concern and disappointment, and to stress the need for Israel to do everything possible to protect civilians and allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need. He said there must be an immediate end to violence on both sides.
Speaking by video link from Gaza where he had just managed to arrive from Israel, UNRWA Director of Operations in Gaza John Ging told a news conference in New York: “It’s a shocking state of affairs. The first thing you will be struck by is just the emptiness. The streets are empty, nothing’s happening, except intermittently you see a family running with their suitcases obviously looking for safe haven somewhere. It’s really a horrible existence for the people here at all levels.”
The drones are ongoing continuously, the shellings are incessant, and now there is the major ground operation, he said, adding: “The people here I can only describe to be terrorized… they’re traumatized, they’re continuously now telling me that they feel trapped. If this were another conflict people would be fleeing, but they can’t flee in Gaza, there’s nowhere to flee to.”
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told the same news conference the humanitarian crisis was “increasingly alarming,” with the people of Gaza becoming more cold, hungry, often lacking power, water and other basic services as well as facing the constant threat of bombing and shelling, while UNRWA food distributions are becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous.
Asked about Israeli statements that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Mr. Holmes replied: “This is in our view a humanitarian crisis, it’s very hard for me to see any other way you could describe it, given the conditions in which the population are living. It’s not only a humanitarian crisis, it’s one which is worsening day by day as the violence continues, which is why it’s so important that that violence should stop.”
Mr. Gaylard said electricity and communications were down over much of the Gaza Strip due to the lack of fuel and damage to critical infrastructure. “Over a million people are currently without power, and over a quarter million without running water, some for up to six days,” he added.
The fuel crossing from Israel at Nahal Oz was opened today for urgently needed industrial fuel and “we hope that this crossing will now remain open in order for sufficient supplies to enter over the coming days, and for the Gaza power plant to continue to operate on a more sustained basis,” he said.
He stressed the power supply crisis has been exacerbated by damage to 10 transformers and at least 6 electricity lines coming in from Israel and Egypt as a result of collateral damage during fighting. Major priorities include the need to bring in wheat grain in bulk through the conveyor system at the Karni crossing and industrial fuel through Nahal Oz, he noted.
“We need a humanitarian breathing space to operate and to ensure that assistance particularly food and medical [supplies] reaches the people,” he stressed. “Ambulances, staff, patients must be able to move freely. This includes the ability to leave and seek medical treatments unavailable in Gaza. International medical emergency teams need to be allowed in to support emergency capacity at Shifa hospital.”
Cash also needs to be replenished in Gaza. “Without cash people cannot procure food, even when it is available. Without cash, UNRWA cannot pay its suppliers and contractors, let alone its 10,000 staff, all of whom are essential if distributions are to take place, shelters to be managed, and operations to be maintained,” he added.