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Retaliatory spiral in Middle East must end, says UN chief after reported strikes on Iran

A young boy is treated by a mobile emergency clinic team in Northern Gaza.
A young boy is treated by a mobile emergency clinic team in Northern Gaza.

Retaliatory spiral in Middle East must end, says UN chief after reported strikes on Iran

Peace and Security

Following reports of alleged Israeli strikes inside Iran near a nuclear power station early Friday, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a new appeal to all parties to “stop the dangerous cycle of retaliation in the Middle East”.

“The Secretary-General condemns any act of retaliation and appeals to the international community to work together to prevent any further development that could lead to devastating consequences for the entire region and beyond,” he said in a statement issued by his Office.

Echoing those concerns, UN atomic energy agency chief Rafael Grossi urged “extreme restraint” from all sides, after more than six and a half months of war in Gaza that have fuelled fears of a wider regional conflict.

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IAEA can confirm that there is no damage to Iran’s nuclear sites" and Director-General Grossi "continues to call for extreme restraint from everybody and reiterates that nuclear facilities should never be a target in military conflicts", the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a tweet following unconfirmed media reports that possible drone strikes had targeted the Iranian province of Isfahan, which is home to nuclear facilities and military garrisons. 

In Geneva, too, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, urged all parties “to take steps to de-escalate the situation” rapidly. 

“(We) call on third States, in particular those with influence, to do all in their power to ensure there is no further deterioration in an already extremely precarious situation,” said OHCHR spokesperson Jeremy Laurence.

Hunger and fear

In Gaza, aid teams offered new insight into the dangers faced by Palestinian civilians – particularly pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers – as a result of the “wanton destruction” of vital medical equipment and widespread “dehydration, malnutrition and fear” among Palestinians.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, Dominic Allen, Representative for the UN sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) for Palestine, said that there were indications that the number of complicated births is nearly twice what it was before war erupted.

“There is absolutely an increase in the numbers,” he said, adding that pre-war, around 15 per cent of births required some form of emergency obstetric care. Today, some doctors have reported “a doubling of what they previously had dealt with, and this is due to malnutrition, dehydration and fear, which impact the pregnant woman’s ability to give birth safely and carry their baby to full term safely,” the UNFPA official said.

‘Wanton destruction’

Mr. Allen described his latest mission to Gaza to assess the impact of Israeli attacks on healthcare at embattled hospitals in the north, central and southern governorates.

It was clear that the last remaining hospitals in the enclave – including its second largest, Nasser Hospital – are “clinging to life themselves whilst they are a lifeline for the pregnant women of Gaza”, Mr. Allen said via video link from Jerusalem. “What I saw, it breaks my heart…It's indescribable. What we see there is medical equipment, purposefully broken, ultrasounds – which you will know is a very important tool for helping ensure safe births – with cables that have been cut, screens of complex medical equipment like ultrasounds and other with the screens smashed. So, purposeful, wanton destruction in the maternity ward.”

Before intense Israeli bombardment began in response to Hamas-led terror attacks across southern Israel on 7 October, Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis had a maternity ward which UNFPA teams have supported and supplied for years.

In order to be fully functional again, the hospital will need reconditioned water and sanitation services and repairs to damaged electricity generators, at a bare minimum. “But, I stood beside the warehouse (where) we delivered supplies many months ago and it was literally burning; there's so much work to do in terms of trying to re-establish that lifeline,” Mr. Allen said.

‘Palpable’ fear

The UNFPA mission, which began on Monday 8 April and ended this Wednesday, was carried out in partnership with the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the UN aid coordination office, OCHA, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

The objective was to visit around 10 hospitals in Gaza, among them Al Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza, which was “overwhelmed with trauma patients” and not supporting maternity care. 

At Emirati Hospital in the south of the enclave, Mr. Allen recounted meeting the medical director of the facility who said that “he no longer sees normal-sized babies.”

Turning to Rafah and continuing fears of an Israeli incursion, the UNFPA officer underscored the “great sense of fear” hanging over the more than 1.2 million people sheltering there.

“There is a palpable fear from the Gazans who I spoke with - the midwives, doctors, pregnant women, my fellow colleagues, who are in Gaza…Right now it's a haven for 1.2 million Gazans; it's not a safe haven, but it's a haven at least.”