The top United Nations humanitarian official today called on Israel to immediately open up crossing points into Gaza for full access for massive relief aid and reconstruction supplies following its devastating three-week offensive against Hamas militants.
“Israel has a particular responsibility as the occupying power in this context, because of its control of Gaza’s borders with Israel, to respect the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told the Security Council in a report on his just-completed visit to Gaza, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“It is therefore critical that new steps are taken immediately by the Israeli authorities to move to the sustained re-opening of crossing points,” he said, stressing that improving the living conditions of Gaza’s 1.5 million people was vital to avoid further despair and undermining the two-state diplomatic solution to the decades-old Middle East conflict.
As he did frequently during the assault Israel launched on 27 December with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, Mr. Holmes meted out blame to both sides in the conflict.
“The reckless and cynical use of civilian installations by Hamas, and the indiscriminate firing of rockets against civilian populations, are clear violations of international humanitarian law,” he said. However, even taking into account Israel’s security concern to protect its own civilian population, it is clear that there are major questions to be asked about the failure of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to protect effectively civilians and humanitarian workers in Gaza.
“Given the scale and nature of the damage and loss of life, there are also obvious concerns about a lack of wider respect for international humanitarian law, particularly the principles of distinction and proportionality. There must be accountability.”
Mr. Holmes cited the toll of the conflict: some 1,300 Palestinians killed, and more than 5,300 injured, 34 per cent of them children, according to Palestinian Ministry of Health figures that have not been seriously challenged; 21,000 homes destroyed or badly damaged; over 50,000 people displaced in UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) structures during the height of the fighting, with tens of thousands more sheltering with families and friends.
“Widespread destruction was caused to Gaza’s economic and civil infrastructure,” he said. “I saw for example, an entire industrial and residential area in East Jabalia which had been systematically bulldozed, an area of at least one square kilometre; one of the best schools in Gaza reduced to rubble; and much of the Al Quds hospital in Gaza City burned out.”
But he stressed the critical need to look forward to bring urgent relief to Gaza after 18 months of closure, which steadily weakened health, livelihoods and infrastructure even before the recent offensive.
“A massive humanitarian effort is now needed in areas such as food security, nutrition, water and sanitation, shelter, essential repairs of power, roads and other basic infrastructure, rebuilding the health system, rubble removal, unexploded ordnance and psychosocial care. As only one example, 1.3 million Gazans, almost 90 per cent of the population, now need food aid,” he said, noting that he would launch a Flash Appeal on 2 February.
He told journalists afterwards that the appeal would amount to several hundred millions of dollars, adding that members of the Council who spoke during later consultations were very focused on the need for urgent action and the full opening of the crossing points.
Much freer access for goods and staff is needed, Mr. Holmes, who also serves as Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the 15-member body. While Israel has allowed increased shipments of basic commodities with 120 truckloads getting in on good days, the normal daily requirement is a minimum of 500. Many humanitarian workers continue to be refused regular entry.
If aid workers continue to face rigid limits on their movement and essential items such as construction materials, pipes, electrical wires and transformers are kept out, the lives of the Gazan people cannot significantly improve, he said.
The Under-Secretary-General also emphasized that Hamas must refrain from any interference with the movement or distribution of humanitarian goods, noting that reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which it ousted from Gaza in 2007, would best facilitate relief and recovery activities.
“The people of Gaza have continued to exist in what is effectively a giant open-air prison, without normality or dignity. Their lives have been put at risk recklessly by indiscriminate rocket attacks from their midst, which have also killed, injured and traumatized Israeli civilians in Southern Israel. They have now endured a terrifying assault, and must live with its devastating aftermath,” he concluded.
“This is not sustainable or acceptable. It can only lead to more despair, suffering, death and destruction in the coming years, and perhaps fatally undermine the two-state solution we all seek,” he added, referring to the Roadmap plan for Israel and Palestine to live side by side in peace.
“It must therefore be in the long term interests of all parties, including Israel, to ease conditions for the people of Gaza, by opening the crossings, facilitating the provision of assistance, and allowing them to live, work and hope again.”
Addressing the same Council session before it adjourned for consultations, the head of the UN senior UN refugee official in the region cited the apparent systematic destruction of schools, universities, residential buildings, factories, shops and farms. “Every Gazan projects a sense of having stared death in the face,” UNRWA Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd said.
“There is rage against the attackers for often failing top distinguish between military targets and civilians and there is also resentment against the international community for having allowed first the siege and then the war to go on for so long,” she added, calling for political action to end the occupation and peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) reported that all crossings were closed today as a result of an Israeli soldier being killed.
For its part, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is currently assessing damage and preparing a plan for reconstruction, focusing on rubble removal, agriculture, water and sanitation, while the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is providing essential educational equipment and materials to help restore a sense of normalcy for youngsters. In northern Gaza, UNICEF tents are serving as temporary learning spaces for girls.