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Rafah a ‘pressure cooker of despair’ in Gaza; US ambassador to UN stresses vital role of UNRWA

In Gaza, every day is a struggle to find bread and water. Without safe water, many people will die from deprivation and disease.
In Gaza, every day is a struggle to find bread and water. Without safe water, many people will die from deprivation and disease.

Rafah a ‘pressure cooker of despair’ in Gaza; US ambassador to UN stresses vital role of UNRWA

Peace and Security

The UN agency assisting Palestine refugees (UNRWA) plays a “critical role” in delivering aid to civilians in the Gaza Strip and it is vital to restore international confidence in the agency, the United States Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Friday.

This is why there must be a “swift, comprehensive investigation” by the UN and an independent external review by a non-UN body into UNRWA, including the allegations that a number of employees participated in the 7 October terror attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups on Israeli communities, she added.

“That is how we restore donor confidence and it is how we ensure that nothing like this happens again. And we appreciate the Secretary-General's commitment to that end,” she added, speaking in her individual capacity to correspondents at a stakeout at UN Headquarters in New York.

‘Get behind’ Security Council resolutions

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield highlighted the need to “get behind” and implement the two humanitarian resolutions that have already been adopted by the Security Council, and for strongly supporting UN Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator Sigrid Kaag, who has been mandated by the Council to help scale up aid into the enclave.

“Her success, and we have been clear on this, her success is the UN’s success in Gaza,” she added, noting “we cannot afford to undermine her efforts or the sensitive negotiations taking place as we speak.”

US Permanent Representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaking to correspondents.

The ambassador noted her country’s ongoing efforts with regional actors on developing a proposal that will secure the release of hostages held by Hamas and other groups, as has been called for by the Security Council.

Such a move would enable a prolonged humanitarian pause, “longer than the one we saw in November, allowing for more lifesaving food, water, fuel, medicines to get into the hands of Palestinian civilians who desperately need it,” she stated.

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said that a new draft resolution on the crisis, proposed by Security Council member Algeria, “could put sensitive negotiations in jeopardy, derailing the exhaustive, ongoing diplomatic efforts” to secure the release of hostages and secure an extended humanitarian pause desperately needed by Palestinian civilians and aid workers.

In the two resolutions, adopted on 15 November and 22 December last year, the Council called for urgent and extended humanitarian pauses through the Gaza Strip to enable aid to civilians, as well as for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas and other groups. In the latter, the Council also asked the Secretary-General to appoint a Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator to “facilitate, coordinate, monitor, and verify” the humanitarian nature of aid consignments.

Efforts to address rising West Bank violence

The US Permanent Representative also noted steps recently announced by the White House to address the “disturbing rise” of settler violence in the West Bank.

US President Joseph Biden signed, an executive order on Thursday that imposes financial sanctions and visa bans, initially for four Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have been attacking Palestinians, according to media reports.

The executive order is a means of “addressing these actions” including violence against civilians or intimidation which may cause them to leave their homes, destroy or seize their priorities, and other acts of terrorism “which undermine security, peace and stability for Israelis and Palestinians alike”, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said.

“Now is the time to allow space for the sensitive hostage negotiations to proceed, to get behind Special Coordinator Kaag’s proposal, and to hold accountable those perpetrating violence that undermine safety and stability,” she said. 

A ‘pressure cooker of despair’ 

Meanwhile, thousands of Gazans have continued to flee intense hostilities in Khan Younis towards the massively overcrowded southern city of Rafah which UN humanitarians described as a “pressure cooker of despair”.

The warning from the UN aid coordination office, OCHA comes nearly four months since Israel commenced a devastating bombing campaign in response to Hamas-led terror attacks on 7 October that left some 1,200 people butchered in southern Israeli communities and more than 250 taken hostage.

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“In recent days, thousands of Palestinians have been fleeing to the south to Rafah, which is already hosting over half of Gaza’s population of some 2.3 million people,” said OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke. 

100,000 dead, injured or missing

Repeating deep concerns that nowhere in Gaza is safe amid reports of Israeli shelling on the periphery of Rafah on Friday, Mr. Laerke told journalists that most of the new arrivals were “living in makeshift structures, tents or out in the open. Rafah is now a pressure cooker of despair, and we fear for what happens next.”

To date, 100,000 people in Gaza “are either dead, injured or missing and presumed dead” as a result of bombing raids and fighting on the ground between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

Sixty per cent of the 27,019 fatalities reported by the enclave’s health authorities have been women and children, the UN health agency reported, with more than 66,000 now injured and requiring medical care that remains difficult to access. 

Health system crumbling

Highlighting the “extremely challenging” task of replenishing hospitals and medical centres throughout the wartorn enclave, WHO Representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory Dr. Rick Peeperkorn explained that of 15 planned missions to the north in January, three had been carried out, four had been impeded by impassable routes, one postponed and eight were denied.

Dr. Peeperkorn added that of the 11 planned missions to the south last month, four had gone ahead, two were postponed and two were impeded either because checkpoints opened late or owing to excessive delays. Authorizations were denied for three missions.

“Lack of safety guarantees and humanitarian corridors in Gaza are making it increasingly challenging to safely and rapidly carry out humanitarian operations,” the WHO official said, speaking from Jerusalem. “Lack of sustained access to hospitals could dismantle the health system.”

Child trauma

The development came as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that at least 17,000 children in Gaza are unaccompanied or separated

“Each one, a heartbreaking story of loss and grief,” said Jonathan Crickx,  UNICEF Chief of Communication in the State of Palestine.

Speaking from Jerusalem to journalists in Geneva, the UNICEF official described meeting youngsters in Gaza earlier this week. Among them was 11-year-old Razan, who lost almost all her family during a bombing raid in the first weeks of the war.

“Her mother, father, brother and two sisters were killed,” Mr. Crickx continued. “Razan's leg was also injured and had to be amputated. Following the surgery, her wound got infected. Razan is now being taken care of by her aunt and uncle, all of whom have been displaced to Rafah.”

Because of the lack of food, water and shelter, extended families are struggling to look after themselves, let alone orphaned or unaccompanied children, the UNICEF officer said.

“I met these children in Rafah. We fear that the situation of children who have lost their parents is much worse in the north and the centre of the Gaza Strip.”