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The UN secretary-general warned that the war between Israel and Hamas had brought the humanitarian system in Gaza to the verge of collapse, and risked “aggravating” threats to “international peace and security”.
Using a rarely invoked article in the UN charter to flag his concerns to the security council on Wednesday, António Guterres flagged that more than eight weeks into the war there was “no effective protection of civilians” in Gaza, and that the conflict had turned hospitals into “battlegrounds”.
“We are facing a severe risk of collapse of the humanitarian system. The situation is fast deteriorating into a catastrophe with potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region,” he wrote in a letter to the security council. “Such an outcome must be avoided at all cost.”
Israel declared war on Hamas after militants from the Palestinian group stormed into Israel on October 7, killing around 1,200 people according to Israeli officials, and taking another 240 hostages in the deadliest attack on Israeli soil.
Guterres repeated his condemnation of Hamas’s attack, called for a humanitarian ceasefire and the immediate and unconditional release of the remaining hostages. He described accounts of sexual violence by Hamas militants during the attacks as “appalling”.
But he also warned that Israel’s retaliatory bombardment had taken a devastating toll on civilians. According to health officials in Gaza, more than 16,200 people have been killed, more than 70 per cent of them women and children.
Guterres added that, in the face of the intense Israeli bombardment and with Gaza’s population left without “shelter or the essentials to survive”, there was a risk that public order could soon “completely break down”.
This, he cautioned, would render “even limited humanitarian assistance impossible”.
“An even worse situation could unfold, including epidemic diseases and increased pressure for mass displacement into neighbouring countries,” he wrote.
During a brief ceasefire last week, a limited amount of aid flowed into Gaza via the border crossing from Egypt in Rafah. But Guterres warned that the volume of support — a fraction of prewar levels — was “insufficient”, and the UN was “simply unable to reach those in need inside Gaza”.
Israel’s war and security cabinets voted on Wednesday night to approve increased humanitarian aid — which the US administration has been demanding. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had advocated acquiescing to the US request despite opposition from hardline elements in his coalition, including hawks in his own Likud party.
In a statement, Netanyahu’s office said the security cabinet had “approved the war cabinet’s recommendation to allow the minimal addition of fuel necessary to prevent a humanitarian collapse and the outbreak of epidemics in the southern Gaza Strip. The minimum scope will be determined from time to time by the war cabinet according to the morbidity and the humanitarian situation in the Strip.”
Rafah, a town of 280,000, has received half a million displaced people since the war began. With more expected to arrive as Israel steps up its operations in Khan Younis and other parts of southern Gaza, UN officials have said that Rafah’s infrastructure risks being overwhelmed.
Israel has been urging up to 600,000 to evacuate its area of operations in southern Gaza. But thousands of displaced people are already living on the streets of Rafah because UN schools in the town, which have been serving as shelters, are too full. UN officials said earlier this week that they had already distributed their last 300 tents.
Many of the new arrivals in Rafah are people who have had to move their families repeatedly to escape the war. As he set up a tent for his family of 12, Hamad Abu Rokba said they had first moved to Beit Lahia in the north then to Khan Younis in the south, before being forced to flee to Rafah.
“Can there be more humiliation than this in the world?” he asked. “Bombardment, shooting, diseases and loss of dignity.”
Source: Financial Times