The United Nations will resume suspended aid distribution for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza as soon as possible after receiving credible security assurances from “the very highest levels” in Israel following an attack that killed one UN contract driver and injured a second although they had received Israeli clearance.
At the same time, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, intensifying diplomatic efforts to ensure implementation of last night''s Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, phoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today to voice his disappointment that the violence is continuing on the ground in disregard of the call.
“He''s working right now on those diplomatic channels,” spokesperson Michele Montas told a news briefing in New York as Israel''s offensive moved towards its 15th day with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) yesterday suspended food delivery operations to 750,000 Palestinian refugees after the Israeli attack.
“It''s very good news we''ve received these assurances,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told the briefing.
Speaking by video link from ground zero in Gaza, UNRWA Director of Operations John Ging said: “We''re very relieved here.” He added that it was a “horrendous decision” he had had to make to suspend delivery operations when hundreds of thousands of Gazans are in dire need of food, water and other essentials.
The assurances were given at a high-level meeting today at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv at which Israel “deeply regretted” the incidents and said they did not reflect official Government policy.
“The UN received credible assurances that the security of UN personnel, installations and humanitarian operations would be fully respected, including undertakings of improved liaison and more effective internal coordination within the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] ” UNRWA and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) said in a joint statement.
“On this basis, UN staff movements suspended yesterday will resume as soon as possible. The UN will keep the safety and security of its staff under constant review,” they added. Mr. Ging said the assurances came from the highest levels of the Government and UNRWA Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd would hold further meetings in Tel Aviv tomorrow. “We''re optimistic,” he added about the forthcoming resumption.
On the ground, however, the fighting continued despite last night''s ceasefire resolution. “Today in Gaza we woke up to the good news from the Security Council, it certainly generated some realistic basis for hope that hope is certainly waning as the day has gone along,” Mr. Ging said.
“It''s the same, if not worse on the ground,” Mr. Holmes added, voicing disappointment that both sides had ignored the call. “Civilians are not safe anywhere in Gaza,” he said, stressing the rising civilian toll among the 792 dead and 3,200 injured, according to Palestinian figures deemed credible by the UN.
He noted that some aid was getting through the crossings from Israel, but the problem was moving it around within the Gaza Strip amid the fierce fighting.
Israel again instituted its third successive three-hour truce today, which Mr. Holmes said was useful “in terms of the population having a little bit of relief from the constant bombing and shelling and violence, the ability to move around to some extent, to have access to the wounded, to bury their dead, to have access to shops if such things are open, but also to enable technicians to repair infrastructure on the power side and on the water side.
“But let me emphasize again: it does not create an environment where there is free and safe access to basic services for long enough for the population to be meaningful,” he added.
The food situation continues to deteriorate with 80 per cent of the 1.5 million people in need of assistance, the health situation is “extremely worrying,” with access problems for hospital staff, most of Gaza is without power, solid sewage waste is piling up, and over 21,000 people are now sheltering in UN schools amid a shortage of blankets and other essentials, he said.
Meanwhile, World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director Josette Sheeran today went to Rafah on the Egyptian border with Gaza to get first hand information on the humanitarian challenges, and pledged to provide food aid to some 360,000 of the non-refugee population in Gaza, up from 250,000 at present.
She has sent a senior WFP team to Jerusalem to urge the Israeli authorities to grant freer humanitarian access to Gaza so that the agency can respond to the immediate food needs. “It''s critical that WFP and all humanitarian workers have free and unfettered access to the people of Gaza at this difficult time,” she said, adding that food supplies were waiting in warehouses to be distributed to the hungry.
In New York, General Assembly President Miguel D''Escoto, while welcoming the ceasefire resolution as an important step, said it “reflects a minimalist response of the Security Council to a horrific aggression.
“The Council''s action, important as it is, was neither prompt nor effective, as demanded by Article 24 of the United Nations Charter. Rather than responding to the warnings of a likely new aggression against Gaza, the Council fiddled while Gaza burned,” his spokesperson said in a statement.
“Gaza is still burning, but the Security Council resolution could be at least a first step in a process to quench that fire. The President is aware that the Security Council resolution does not eliminate the continuing obligations of the United Nations as a whole, including the General Assembly, to the people of Gaza. He will continue his efforts to meet those obligations.”