Concerned about more civilian casualties in a possible Israeli military incursion into Gaza, senior United Nations humanitarian officials on a visit to the area called today for an immediate return to calm and a ceasefire to avoid further loss of life.
“We must once again remind all parties that they must strictly adhere to international humanitarian law,” the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory, James Rawley, said alongside the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Pierre Krähenbühl.
He noted the need to fully respect the principles of distinction between civilians and combatants, proportionality, and taking precautions to avoid civilian casualties.
At least 174 people in Gaza have been killed and over 1,100 wounded, according to figures cited by Mr. Krähenbühl, who expressed particular concern about the numbers of women, children and people with disabilities among the reported victims.
“Never will even the most impressive television footage properly capture the depth of fear and despair felt in the homes and hearts of Gazans who are yet again facing death, devastation and displacement,” the head of UNRWA said.
The UN agency has now declared an emergency for operations in all five of its areas in Gaza, with approximately 17,000 refugees seeking refuge in its 20 schools.
“Some [are] being displaced to the very same classrooms for the third time in five years,” said Mr. Krähenbühl, after a visit to one of the shelters.
At least 33 children were killed in Gaza in recent days, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported yesterday, highlighting the negative impact violence has on children both physically and psychologically. “Too often children who witness such violence, and come to view it as ‘normal’, are likely to repeat it themselves in later life.”
Noting UNRWA figures which counted damage by Israeli air raids and fire to at least 47 UN-supported or run schools, clinics and warehouses, Mr. Rawley also called on the parties to avoid directing attacks on civilian infrastructure or in densely populated areas.
He said the team has had “a small glimpse” of the destruction incurred so far and it includes damage to 66 schools and over 940 homes, as well as losses to the health, education, water and sanitation facilities, and the electricity infrastructure.
The current fighting takes place against a backdrop of poverty, unemployment, food insecurity and a failing economy in Gaza, both UN officials stated. As a result, a true solution to the current cycle of violence must be political and development-focused, and address the underlying causes of the conflict.
“While our immediate priority is to end the current round of hostilities, for the ceasefire to be sustainable it will have to address political, security and development challenges as well,” Mr. Rawley said.
Both UN officials echoed the calls of the Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who, among others in recent days, have called for all parties to respect international law, and protect civilians.
This includes an end to rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israel, which the UN has described as “indiscriminate.”