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Gaza: 'History is watching' warns UN relief chief, saying aid access is key priority

“History is watching,” Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths told UN News in Geneva, highlighting the desperate situation facing around one million Gazans uprooted in the last week, after the Israeli military warned of an imminent offensive following the deadly 7 October attacks on Israel by militant group Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza strip since 2006.

Aid access is our overwhelming priority. And we are in deep discussions hourly with the Israelis, with the Egyptians, with the Gazans about how to do that,” Mr. Griffiths said, adding that he was optimistic about hearing “some good news” soon that a solution could be found to the political impasse which has prevented aid convoys crossing from Egypt’s Rafah into southern Gaza.

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The top UN aid official was speaking before heading to the Middle East, “trying to help, working with diplomats from all countries” to secure aid access and de-escalate the tinderbox situation, which UN Secretary-General described on Sunday as being on the “verge of the abyss”.

International responsibility

“It’s all Member States who have obligations…not just those in the region” to defuse the worst Israeli-Palestinian conflagration in decades, Mr. Griffiths continued. “The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the Arab world all have obligations” to ensure that the lives of civilians are protected and the rules of war observed.

“Don’t attack civilian infrastructure, protect civilians when they move,” the UN official insisted. “Make sure they get the aid they need and make sure that there are corridors which allow them some respite from the relentless attacks that are happening upon them.”

Hostage crisis

Among the key issues facing diplomats is securing the release of a reported 199 Israeli hostages, seized during the Hamas raid, the UN emergency relief chief continued.

“This war was started by taking those hostages. Of course, there’s a history between Palestinian people and the Israeli people, and I’m not denying any of that. But that act alone lit a fire, which can only be put out with the release of those hostages.”

Amid ongoing airstrikes in Gaza and concerns over a regional escalation of the conflict – especially on the northern border with Lebanon – Mr. Griffiths reiterated the need for humanity to prevail.

History is watching to see if the consequences of this war are going to be generationally bad or if there are going to be ways in which swiftly that can be rebuilt, some kind of comity or neighbourliness between those two tragic peoples. …(Those are) the messages I’ll be taking to the region about biased in favour of one or the other, that biased in favour of humanity.”

Toll mounts

Since the start of the war, which has claimed the lives of some 1,300 Israeli citizens and injured 3,200 more, a reported 2,750 people have been killed in Gaza and more than 7,500 wounded.

Fourteen staff from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNWRA, have also been killed. “They were teachers, engineers, guards and psychologists, an engineer and a gynecologist,” Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told journalists on Sunday.

Medical aid to Lebanon

The World Health Organization (WHO) has rushed critical medical supplies to Lebanon in order to be ready to respond to any potential health crisis there.

Two shipments arrived in Beirut on Monday from WHO’s logistics hub in Dubai, and include enough surgical and trauma medicines and supplies to meet the needs of 800 to 1000 injured patients. The Lebanese Ministry of Health is in the process of identifying the referral hospitals that will receive these vital supplies.

Lebanon’s health system has been crippled as a result of an economic crisis, the Beirut port blast that occurred in August 2020, and the additional burden of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are severe shortages of specialized medical doctors and health workers, and medicines and medical equipment.

Since violence escalated between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory last Saturday, there have also been reports of clashes on the border between Israel and south Lebanon, resulting in casualties among civilians.

Latest updates from UNRWA:

  • Over one million people – almost half the total population of Gaza – have been displaced. Some 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are in the Middle Area, Khan Yunis and Rafah, of those, nearly 400,000 are in UNRWA facilities – much exceeding our capacity to assist in any meaningful way, including with space in our shelters, food, water or psychological support.    
  • Despite the Israeli Forces’ evacuation order, an unknown number of IDPs remain in UNRWA schools in Gaza city and the North. UNRWA is no longer able to assist or protect them. Over 160,000 IDPs were sheltering in 57 UNRWA premises.
  • The number of killed is increasing. There are not enough body-bags for the dead in Gaza.  
  • There is some water available in local shops, but rations are still down to one litre of water per person per day for the UNRWA teams in the Rafah logistics base (to cover drinking and all other needs).  
  • People across Gaza have severely limited access to clean drinking water. As a last resort, people are consuming brackish water from agricultural wells, triggering serious concerns over the spread of waterborne diseases.  
  • After five days, Gaza has had no electricity, pushing vital services, including health, water and sanitation to the brink of collapse.
  • UNRWA has sent an advance team to Egypt to prepare for the possible opening of a humanitarian corridor to bring humanitarian aid supplies into the Strip.  
  • As of Sunday only eight UNRWA health centres were operational across Gaza providing primary health-care services, with estimated supplies of less than one month.  
  • There are a total of 3,500 hospital beds in Gaza. Evacuation orders apply to 23 hospitals in Gaza and north Gaza, adding up to 2,000 beds. 

More to come on this developing story…

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