UN agencies in Gaza sound alarm about violence, urge protection of civilians

Sisters whose home was destroyed in Gaza

3 August 2006 – With global media attention focused on events in Lebanon, United Nations humanitarian agencies working in the occupied Palestinian territory today issued a statement sounding alarm about the ongoing fighting there and reminding all parties of their obligation under international humanitarian law to protect civilians.

“The United Nations humanitarian agencies working in the occupied Palestinian territory are deeply alarmed by the impact continuing violence is having on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Gaza, which has resulted in a sharp decline in the humanitarian situation facing 1.4 million people, more than half of them children,” said the joint statement.

“We are concerned that with international attention focusing on Lebanon, the tragedy in Gaza is being forgotten.”

Since 28 June, an estimated 175 Palestinians have been killed, including approximately 40 children and eight women, and over 620 injured in the Gaza Strip. One Israeli soldier has been killed and 25 Israelis have been injured, including 11 Israelis injured by home-made rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.

The statement pointed out that under international humanitarian law “all parties to the conflict are obliged to protect civilians during hostilities.” They must also “exercise precaution and respect the principle of proportionality in all military operations to prevent unnecessary suffering among the civilian population.”

The agencies point out that shelling sites with alleged military significance and killing civilians in the process, among them an increasing number of children, “cannot be justified.” They urge all parties to “bear in mind that international law demands accountability and that individual criminal responsibility may be engaged for violations of international humanitarian law.”

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reports an increasing number of displaced Palestinians as a result of the continuous shelling and violence in the Gaza Strip. The Agency is currently sheltering 1,345 people in four schools in the northern district of Jabalia. “Almost all are refugees, fleeing the relentless shelling of the eastern edge of the neighbouring town of Beit Hanoun and the area around the Al Nada housing estate in Beit Lahia,” the statement said. UNRWA is also providing food and medical care.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN facilities as well as large tracts of agricultural land have been damaged during continuing IDF ground incursions. Access and movement in and out of Gaza remain key concerns. While the Karni crossing has opened for humanitarian supplies and some commercial imports, it remains closed for exports. In addition, the Rafah crossing for passengers has remained closed, and the Erez crossing opens intermittently.

“These closures have significantly affected the ability of Gazans to obtain essential medical care not available in Gaza,” the agencies said. OCHA reports that the Israeli security forces have instituted a new policy: telephoning Palestinian families to evacuate their homes before launching air strikes. “This phenomenon is causing panic to entire Palestinian neighbourhoods.”

The World Food Programme (WFP) reports that the shelling and violence is not only harming agriculture, but also contributing to a further reduction in people’s purchasing power, prompting increased dependency on food aid. To support the nutrition of the most vulnerable non-refugee population in Gaza during at this critical time, WFP is increasing the number of people it feeds from 160,000 people to 220,000 people monthly.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the targeting of Gaza’s vital infrastructure, particularly the destruction of the only domestic power plant, has triggered a chain reaction of lack of power, scarcity of fuel for generators and water shortage, causing a serious threat to people’s health and harming the functioning of the entire health system.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is concerned about declining incomes in the farming and fishing sectors. Declining cash incomes and dwindling international aid is impairing the ability of producers to acquire seeds, fertilizer, spare parts for greenhouses, irrigation facilities and fishing boat maintenance. “There is an acute emergency due to the lack of fuel to operate water wells,” the statement warned. “Many orchards and fruit trees could be lost for ever, while the shortage of vegetables may exacerbate nutritional imbalances.”

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) some 838,000 Palestinian children living in Gaza are “bearing the brunt of disproportionate shelling and attacks.” Shortages and closures make it virtually impossible to deliver quality care, while simultaneously fuelling the conditions for outbreaks of communicable disease, which hits children hardest. Given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, UNICEF is stepping up its support in health, education, water and sanitation, psychosocial counselling, and recreational activities for adolescents and younger children.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) “is deeply concerned about the recent shelling that damaged health facilities and restricted access to reproductive health services, especially ante-natal and post-natal care.” The agency has continuously supported procurement of essential items for the delivery of health care. For its part, the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has launched an emergency intervention programme of outreach psychological counselling for women across Gaza.

“These facts speak for themselves,” the joint statement says, calling for a lifting of closures, “bearing in mind Israel’s legitimate security concerns.” Gaza must be given back the capacity to export its goods, the agencies say, calling for an end to both Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza and the disproportionate shelling by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

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