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Humanitarian ceasefires critical to meet immense needs in Gaza

Their humanitarian update opened with a moment of silence for all those who have lost their lives since the start of the conflict on 7 October, and for the 240 Israeli men, women and children still being held hostage by Hamas.

“What we’ve seen unfold over the last 26 days in Israel and in the Occupied Territories is nothing short of what I think I would call a blight on our collective conscience,” said UN Humanitarian Coordinator Martin Griffiths, fresh from the region. “All of us, we are all somehow involved in this.”

Death and displacement 

Mr. Griffiths recalled that 1,400 Israelis have been killed and nearly 9,000 Palestinians, though the true number will only be known after the rubble is cleared in Gaza.  The desolation there reminded him of the early days of the Syrian war “where we saw towns like Homs razed to the ground”.

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More than 1.5 million people are now displaced and nearly 600,000 are crowded in shelters run by the UN agency that assists Palestine refugees, UNRWA, which has lost 72 staff members. He believed this marked the highest loss ever of UN staff in conflict. 

Not enough trucks 

He told ambassadors that “intense humanitarian negotiations day and night” between Israel, Egypt, the United States and the UN have produced results.

So far, 329 trucks carrying aid have entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which opened on 21 October, with 100 making the journey on Thursday alone. However, he said an average of 500 truckloads were needed prior to the conflict.  

“These negotiations – detailed and important as they are – don’t do the business. We are not keeping up with the progress towards desolation, which is the story of Gaza these days,” he said. 

Humanitarian pauses 

Mr. Griffiths reiterated the obligation to respect humanitarian law, to release all hostages unconditionally, and to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, which also includes humanitarian workers and their facilities. 

Civilians remain entitled to protection whether they stay or move, and they have the right to choose. And anyone who doesn’t evacuate mustn’t automatically be considered to support the adversary or target of an attack,” he insisted. 

He said essential supplies must also be allowed into Gaza, including humanitarian relief and fuel. Relatedly, Mr. Griffiths reported that he had received news that more fuel will be delivered to the enclave.

“These negotiations must continue but they are not enough. We must have those pauses,” he said, referring to the call for a humanitarian ceasefire. “If we do not have pauses, we will not keep up with the needs of the people of Gaza and the Israelis also caught up in those areas of conflict.” 

Braving airstrikes for bread 

Meanwhile, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the region warned that the situation will only deteriorate if hostilities continue.

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Lynn Hastings, Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said four UNRWA shelters hosting nearly 20,0000 displaced people were hit on Thursday. At least 23 people were killed, and dozens injured. 

She also spoke of the desperation in Gaza, where back-up generators essential for hospitals, water desalination plants and food production facilities “are one-by-one grinding to a halt”.

The health system is also overwhelmed amid severe shortages of supplies, water, electricity and personnel. To date, 14 out of 35 hospitals and 51 of 72 primary health clinics have shut down.  Only one of the three water supply lines from Israel is operational.

“Access to food is becoming increasingly a concern. People are braving airstrikes to line up outside bakeries to obtain bread, a number of which have already been closed down due to lack of fuel,” she said.

Ease the suffering 

While welcoming the agreement for aid delivery through the Rafah crossing, Ms. Hastings stressed the need to pick up the pace, noting that recent deliveries did not include fuel. Furthermore, additional crossings will be needed. 

She also underlined the appeal for humanitarian ceasefires, saying they “will ease the epic human suffering and make humanitarian access easier and safer.” 

Next week, humanitarians will issue an updated flash appeal for the Occupied Palestinian Territory. They estimate $1.2 billion will be required to meet the needs of the entire population of Gaza and 500,000 people in the West Bank through the end of the year.

No safety

Everyone in Gaza has a story of loss, said Thomas White, Director of UNRWA Affairs, speaking from its Rafah logistics base. 

Although people are sheltering under the UN flag, “the reality is we cannot even provide them safety under a UN flag,” he said.

“We’ve had over 50 of our facilities that have been impacted by the conflict, including five direct hits. I think at last count 38 people have died in our shelters. I fear that with the fighting going on in the north right now, that number is going to grow significantly.”  

Operational challenges

UNRWA’s major challenge is sustaining aid operations “in a situation where civil order, law and order, is on the brink of collapse, and… trying to plan for another wave of displacement into the south.”

The UN agency was already a lifeline for the more than two million people in Gaza, following 16 years of blockade. Prior to the conflict, it was feeding 1.5 million, together with the World Food Programme (WFP).

Current operations are being sustained by stocks that were already in place. UNRWA is supporting 89 bakeries across Gaza, meaning that all bread is essentially made with flour from the agency.  

A young girl eats bread distributed by the World Food Programme at an UNRWA school in Gaza.
© WFP/Ali Jadallah

A young girl eats bread distributed by the World Food Programme at an UNRWA school in Gaza.

Schools now shelters

UNRWA is also supporting water desalination, including at its camps and schools, through fuel supplies secured within Gaza. Mr. White reported that water is the chief need among people huddled in its shelters. Overall, nearly 600,000 Gazans are living in 149 UNRWA shelters, though the agency has lost contact with many of those located in the north.

He explained that shelters are essentially UNRWA schools that normally would cater to 1,000 students but now house an average of 4,000 displaced people.  Women and children sleep in the classrooms while men sleep out in the open.

A similar situation exists at Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza, where “every flat surface” was being used by people who either had been injured or who had sought refuge there.

Life and death

Mr. White also shared another “enduring image” from the hospital. While standing in the courtyard, he could hear and see airstrikes in the nearby suburbs.

“And literally on the clock, within 10 minutes the ambulances started coming through.  Essentially, there were…very badly injured people, lying on the floor of the ambulances.  The triage at the back of the ambulance was who’s dead, who’s alive,” he said.

“Those who were alive with horrific blast injuries, burn injuries, were taken into an already overwhelmed emergency department.  And the people who were dead were then taken literally about 25 metres away to an open-air morgue.”

Ceasefire and public services

Echoing Ms. Hastings, he stressed that humanitarian aid is not the only solution, as the public and private sector in Gaza must also be able to function.

Mr. White gave an example of the critical importance of the municipal services, which are now pumping untreated sewage into the sea.  Workers warn that when the fuel runs out, sewage will flow in the streets.

“We need regular and sustained humanitarian supplies and access alongside the public and private sector,” he said.  “And finally – and this is a call from the people here – they need a ceasefire. They want a ceasefire now.”

Alarm over reported strike on ambulance convoy

Senior UN officials have expressed alarm over reports of ambulances being hit by airstrikes outside Shifa hospital as patients were being evacuated on Friday, in line with Israeli orders to flee south.

Israel said that it had hit targeted an ambulance at the scene, which it claimed was carrying Hamas terrorists.

UN News spoke with the World Health Organization representative in the region for more details:

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UNRWA chief’s warning

UNRWA staff soon will soon be unable to operate unless decisive action is taken now, Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini warned on Friday.

A handful of convoys being allowed through the Rafah crossing “does not make for a meaningful humanitarian operation, nor is it commensurate with the intense political and diplomatic shuttling that has been taking place,” he said in a statement to the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee, which reviews the agency’s work.

The statement was delivered by Greta Gunnarsdottir, head of UNRWA’s Office in New York.

Anger, despair, abandonment

Mr. Lazzarini said the hunger, despair, and feeling of abandonment in Gaza are turning into anger against the international community.  People there cannot comprehend how the world can watch the tragedy unfold without protecting and assisting civilians. 

He feared that their anger will soon shift towards the UN and UNRWA, adding “in Gaza, the international community is better known as UNRWA.” Colleagues have warned against a breakdown in civil order, which he said will make it difficult to continue operations or to bring in convoys.

He also pointed to the “trouble brewing far beyond the borders of the Gaza Strip”, with unprecedented levels of violence in the West Bank, and clashes and casualties along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Appeal for action now

Mr. Lazzarini called for immediate agreement on urgent measures that must be tackled together, beginning with strict adherence to international humanitarian law.  Civilians and civilian infrastructure, including humanitarian and UN facilities, must be protected and hostages must be released.

He underlined the need for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the safe continuous flow of aid.

While UNRWA must lead the humanitarian response, he stressed the need for adequate financial resources, recalling the chronic underfunding of the agency.

“Now more than ever, I strongly urge Member States to step up, be bold and find concrete solutions for ensuring that a stable and predictable UNRWA remains the international community’s greatest asset in the region,” he said.

No going back

Mr. Lazzarini also looked ahead to what he referred to as “the day after” and the need for a political solution as “there is no going back to the pre-war status quo that fuelled the present disaster.”

He said “a genuine prospect of Palestinian statehood and security for all people is critical to stabilize the current situation and to step back from the brink, before it’s too late.” 

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