The daily three-hour pause that Israel began today on the 12th day of its Gaza offensive against Hamas was a good first step but totally insufficient for the United Nations to aid the 1.5 million civilians living in “increasingly appalling” conditions amid credible reports of 680 people killed so far and over 3,000 wounded, senior UN officials warned.
They also said that the outline of a way out of the crisis, which started on 27 December with Israeli air strikes against Gaza with the stated aim of stopping Hamas rocket attacks into Israel, was emerging with moves in the Security Council, ceasefire plans proposed by Egypt and France, and continuing diplomatic efforts by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“This [the pause] is potentially a positive step but because we did not have enough warning and because there was a lack of clarity about what this was going to mean, it was very hard for us to make significant use of it, certainly today,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told a news conference in New York, noting that it was still necessary to move through checkpoints.
“I hope we will be able to use such pauses more in the future if it’s clear that they’re going to be at a fixed time, if it’s clear they’re going to be respected and Gaza-wide… [But] three hours a day is simply totally insufficient for us to be able to do that [get food and supplies to all who need it] which is why it cannot be any kind of substitute for a full end to the hostilities which would allow us to really gear up our humanitarian operation,” he said.
“The single biggest problem we have at the moment, apart from getting goods in, is moving around Gaza both for ourselves and the population. The International Red Cross has said and they’re not prone to exaggeration that people are dying because ambulances cannot get to them in time, people cannot get to hospitals.”
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry also called the lull a good step but not nearly enough, while UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Director of Operations in Gaza John Ging, speaking by video link, gave an eyewitness account of the civilian population’s reaction to the pause.
“I just want to convey to you the phenomenal feeling, the relief of psychological pressure for those couple of hours, it was palpable,” he said of the people going out to get water, food and other essential items. “They still continue to believe in the United Nations… [and are asking], why only three hours, if they can do it for three hours, why not 24 hours,” he added.
“That was a precious three hours and sadly now we have 21 more hours to go before they have another three hours of safety, and God knows how many will be killed and injured in the coming period.”
Mr. Ging said he visited the UNRWA school that was the scene of Israeli shelling yesterday that killed 43 people and injured 100 others, and all staff there insisted there were no Hamas militants inside the compound itself. Israel says it was returning fire against mortars coming from the area of the school and some media reports have quoted residents corroborating this.
Mr. Ging said the three Israeli shells impacted right up against the boundary of the school and both he and Mr. Holmes said the conflicting reports underscored why an independent investigation of the incident was so necessary.
Mr. Holmes also cited “other dreadful incidents that are coming to our notice,” such as a house in Zaitoun, south of Gaza City, where 30 people may have been killed in a strike, with many still under the rubble.
“The apparent level of civilian casualties continued to rise and to be particularly distressing,” he said, also stressing the need for more fuel, food and medical supplies to be allowed in. Israel has opened the border crossings to scores of supply lorries a day but much more is needed, he added. Meanwhile, there was an alarming build-up of a sewage lake due to the lack of power, with the danger of a potentially health-threatening flood.
On the political front, Mr. Serry said it seamed that the outline of a way out of the crisis was rapidly emerging “but more work needs to be done quickly to flesh out a package and secure the buy-in of crucial players.” Mr. Ban will be travelling to the Middle East next week, looking to lock in the elements of an international consensus.
“A return to the status quo ante, the previous situation, cannot be an option,” Mr. Serry said, enumerating the essential elements to a settlement: an immediate and permanent ceasefire, immediate relief for the civilian population of Gaza including open crossings, and a viable system to ensure that borders are properly functioning and that the issue of smuggling is addressed. Israel cited ending rocket and other arms smuggling by Hamas from Egypt as one of the goals of its offensive.
Mr. Serry added that third parties would need to provide assistance on the ground and in diplomatic support to safeguard all the elements of the ceasefire, including a possible international monitoring force.
“There will need also, and this is very important, to be a massive humanitarian reconstruction and economic revival effort for Gaza and the United Nations intends to be in the forefront of responding to that enormous challenge,” he declared. “There can be no more band-aid solutions for Gaza.”
He also stressed that Gaza, where Hamas seized control from the rival Fatah movement in 2007, must be united with the West Bank, governed by Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, whom he called the “umbrella” under which these efforts should be advanced. “Only negotiations and a political solution can empower those who want to live side by side with Israel in peace and stem the appeal of violence and radicalism,” he said.
President Abbas and Fatah embrace the two-State solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side while Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist.
In other developments, the Security Council today continued its high-level meeting on the crisis, with several foreign ministers in attendance, while the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will hold a special session on Friday, at the request of Egypt, Pakistan and Cuba, to address “the grave violations of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including the recent aggression in the occupied Gaza Strip.”
UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura and Mr. Ban’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy today expressed grave concern over the attacks against UNRWA schools and associated facilities set up by the UN as places of refuge for civilians fleeing the fighting in Gaza.