By Arab News
By Ephrem Kossaify
Palestinians in Gaza, whose rights for years have been “comprehensively restricted,” are now enduring a bombardment of an intensity “rarely experienced in this century,” as well as ongoing urban warfare, a leading UN official said on Friday.
Volker Turk, the high commissioner for human rights, added that one in every 57 people living in the Gaza Strip has been killed or wounded in the past five weeks.
Speaking during a meeting of the General Assembly requested by the UN’s Arab Group and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to discuss the humanitarian situation in Gaza, he said: “The levels of distress are unimaginable; the situation is a living nightmare.”
More than 11,100 people have been killed in the territory, more than 4,600 of them children, according to figures from the Gazan health ministry. More than 26,000 people have been injured, many of them severely, and at least 2,000 are presumed trapped under the rubble of damaged or destroyed buildings, with no means available to reach or rescue them. Israeli airstrikes have struck many civilian locations, including hospitals, schools, markets, bakeries and homes.
“An entire population is being deeply traumatized, and the impact on children in particular will have far-reaching consequences,” Turk told the large gathering of ambassadors and heads of UN agencies.
He lamented the fact that many Palestinians have been unable to comply with instructions from Israeli forces to move from northern Gaza, scene of the most intense military action, to the south of the territory. Hundreds of thousands of people, including many children, disabled people, and the sick and wounded, remain stuck in the north, where the shelling is intense and humanitarian access has been impossible.
Turk dismissed the current Israeli proposal for the establishment of a so-called “safe zone” as “untenable,” warning: “The zone is neither safe nor feasible for the number of people in need.”
He joined the heads of other UN agencies, including the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, in warning that fuel supplies in Gaza are on the verge of completely running out.
“Already, this is leading to the collapse of water, sewage and crucial healthcare services, and could end the trickle of humanitarian assistance that Israel has to date permitted to enter Gaza,” Turk said.
He also repeated a warning from the WFP that Gazans “are facing the immediate possibility of starvation.”
He then sounded “the loudest possible alarm bell about the West Bank” and East Jerusalem, expressing great concern about the intensification of violence there and “severe discrimination against Palestinians.”
He said: “I am alarmed by the rise in killings of Palestinians by Israeli security forces and by settlers, displacement of Palestinian communities due to settler violence, a sharp increase in seemingly arbitrary arrests and detention, and the ill-treatment of Palestinians in detention.
“These heighten a potentially explosive situation that is well past the early-warning level.”
Turk called for a humanitarian ceasefire and an end to the fighting, “not only to deliver urgently needed food and provide meaningful humanitarian assistance but also to create space for a path out of this horror.”
“All forms of collective punishment must come to an end. Israelis’ freedom is inextricably bound up with Palestinians’ freedom. Palestinians and Israelis are each other’s only hope for peace.”
Martin Griffiths, the UN’s humanitarian chief, told the General Assembly that “international humanitarian law appears to have been turned on its head.”
He said that more than 41,000 housing units have been destroyed or severely damaged, amounting to about 45 per cent of the total housing stock in Gaza, and it is estimated that more than 1.5 million people are internally displaced.
“Many of them have fled southward in search of relative safety, only to be now told to relocate — many of them for the second time — westward,” he added. “Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands remain in the north, where the fiercest fighting and bombardment is taking place.
“There is little-to-no medical care available in northern Gaza. Out of 24 hospitals with in-patient capacity in the north, only one, Al-Ahli in Gaza city, is presently operational and admitting patients. Eighteen hospitals have shut down and evacuated since the start of hostilities.”
Across the Strip, food and water supplies are running “perilously low,” Griffiths said, and the chronic lack of fuel means communications networks and other essential services, such as water desalination plants, “are progressively dropping offline.”
He urged Hamas to release all the hostages that are still being held, and stressed the need for the humanitarian effort to shift from “ad hoc delivery of assistance to a continuous flow of aid.” To help facilitate this he called for the opening of additional border-crossing points and permission for fuel deliveries to begin.
Griffiths also pleaded for “a humanitarian ceasefire — call it what you will but the requirement, from a humanitarian point of view, is simple: stop the fighting to allow civilians to move safely. Do it for as long as possible, to facilitate an unimpeded humanitarian response. Give the people of Gaza a breather from the terrible, terrible things that have been put on them these last few weeks. And, without condition, release all the hostages.
“We are not asking for the moon, we are asking for the basic measures required to meet the essential needs of the civilian population and stem the course of this crisis.”