UN agency in Gaza says urgent cease-fire is a matter of life and death for millions of Palestinians

According to the latest figures from Gaza’s Ministry of Health, more than 8,300 people have been killed — 66% of them women and children — and tens of thousands injured.

Riyad Mansour speaking at the U.N.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, addresses members of the U.N. Security Council at United Nations headquarters, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

The head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees told a U.N. emergency meeting Monday “an immediate humanitarian cease-fire has become a matter of life and death for millions,” accusing Israel of “collective punishment” of Palestinians and the forced displacement of civilians.

Philippe Lazzarini warned that a further breakdown of civil order after the agency’s warehouses were broken into by Palestinians searching for food and other aid “will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the largest U.N. agency in Gaza to continue operating.”

Briefings to the Security Council by Lazzarini, the head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and a senior U.N. humanitarian official painted a dire picture of the humanitarian situation in Gaza 23 days after Hamas’ surprise Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, and its ongoing retaliatory military action aimed at “obliterating” the militant group, which controls Gaza.

According to the latest figures from Gaza’s Ministry of Health, more than 8,300 people have been killed — 66% of them women and children — and tens of thousands injured, the U.N. humanitarian office said.

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UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell that toll includes over 3,400 children killed and more than 6,300 injured. “This means that more than 420 children are being killed or injured in Gaza each day — a number which should shake each of us to our core,” she said.

Lazzarini said: “This surpasses the number of children killed annually across the world’s conflict zones since 2019.” And he stressed, “This cannot be ‘collateral damage.’”

Many speakers at the council meeting denounced Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attacks on Israel that killed over 1,400 people, and urged the release of some 230 hostages taken to Gaza by the militants. But virtually every speaker also stressed that Israel is obligated under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and their essentials for life including hospitals, schools and other infrastructure — and Israel was criticized for cutting off food, water, fuel and medicine to Gaza and cutting communications for several days.

Lazzarini said “the handful of convoys” allowed into Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt in recent days “is nothing compared to the needs of over 2 million people trapped in Gaza.”

“The system in place to allow aid into Gaza is geared to fail,” he said, “unless there is political will to make the flow of supplies meaningful, matching the unprecedented humanitarian needs.”

The commissioner-general of the U.N. agency known as UNRWA said there is no safe place anywhere in Gaza, warning that basic services are crumbling, medicine, food, water, and fuel are running out, and the streets “have started overflowing with sewage, which will cause a massive health hazard very soon.”

UNICEF oversees water and sanitation issues for the U.N., and Russell warned that “the lack of clean water and safe sanitation is on the verge of becoming a catastrophe.”

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged the divided Security Council — which has rejected four resolutions that would have responded to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and the ongoing war — to come together, saying “the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is growing more dire by the day.”

Stressing that all innocent civilians must be protected, she said the council must call “for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, address the immense humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, affirm Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorism, and remind all actors that international humanitarian law must be respected.” She reiterated President Joe Biden’s calls for humanitarian pauses to get hostages out and allow aid in, and for safe passage for civilians.

“That means Hamas must not use Palestinians as human shields — an act of unthinkable cruelty and a violation of the law of war,” the U.S. ambassador said, “and that means Israel must take all possible precautions to avoid harm to civilians.”

In a sign of increasing U.S. concern at the escalating Palestinian death toll, Thomas-Greenfield told the council Biden reiterated to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday “that while Israel has the right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism, it must do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law.”

“The fact that Hamas operates within and under the cover of civilians areas creates an added burden for Israel, but it does not lessen its responsibility to distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians,” she stressed.

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Following the rejection of the four resolutions in the 15-member Security Council — one vetoed by the U.S., one vetoed by Russia and China, and two for failing to get the minimum nine “yes” votes — Arab nations went to the U.N. General Assembly last Friday where there are no vetoes.

The 193-member world body adopted a resolution calling for humanitarian truces leading to a cessation of hostilities by a vote of 120-14 with 45 abstentions. Now, the 10 elected members in the 15-member Security Council are trying again to negotiate a resolution that won’t be rejected. While council resolutions are legally binding, assembly resolutions are not though they are an important barometer of world opinion.

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan was sharply critical of the council’s failure to condemn Hamas’ attacks and asked members: “Why are the humanitarian needs of Gazans, the sole issue, the sole issue you are focused on?”

Recalling his grandfather who survived Nazi death camps but whose his wife and seven children perished in the Auschwitz gas chamber, Erdan told the council he will wear a yellow star — just as Hitler made his grandfather and other Jews wear during World War II — “until you condemn the atrocities of Hamas and demand the immediate release of our hostages.”

The ambassador then put a large six-pointed yellow star of David saying “Never Again” on his suit jacket, as did other Israeli diplomats sitting behind him, and said: “We walk with the yellow star as a symbol of pride, a reminder that we swore to fight back to defend ourselves. Never again is now.”

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, also urged the Security Council to follow the General Assembly, end its paralysis, and demand “an end to this bloodshed, which constitutes an affront to humanity, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and a clear and imminent danger for regional and international peace and security.”

“Save those who still can be saved and bury in a dignified manner those who have perished,” Mansour said.

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