Gaza conflict threatens regional peace and stability, UN official cautions

A section of Gaza damaged by aerial bombardment

2 January 2009 – The future of the Middle-East peace process, the stability of the region and the safety of ordinary people in the Gaza Strip have been seriously jeopardized by the “irresponsibility of Hamas rocket attacks” and the “excessiveness of Israel's response,” a senior United Nations envoy warned today, as diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict intensify.

On the seventh day of Israeli bombing raids on Gaza and with more than 400 Gazans reportedly killed and thousands wounded, Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, called for the international community to step up its attempts to end the growing humanitarian crisis.

“Much of Gaza's infrastructure has now been destroyed. The death and injury toll in Gaza continues to mount. Hamas rockets are now reaching 40 kilometres into Israel,” Mr. Serry said via video-link from Jerusalem.

Israel has cited rocket and other attacks by militants in Gaza against Israeli civilians as the reason for its military offensive and closing crossings into Gaza for much of the previous two months.

With Israeli tanks on Gaza's border, the envoy underscored the urgency and importance of an immediate and lasting cessation of hostilities to avoid an even deeper and deadlier conflict.

He said that he will join a number of Arab leaders slated to arrive in New York next week to find a solution to the crisis.

“Diplomatic efforts are underway involving many players, including the United States, the European Union (EU), the Arab League, Turkey and others, and we believe the roles of the Quartet [comprising the UN, EU, Russia and the US] and the Security Council are going to be very important.”

While a ceasefire is vital, a return to the previous situation would not be enough to maintain security or find a durable peace, Mr. Serry said.

He stressed the need for the uninterrupted reopening of crossings into Gaza with a commitment from both sides to fully respect a ceasefire, including an end to all rocket attacks from Gaza and weapons smuggling into the Hamas controlled territory.

“It will also require bringing Gaza back into the fold of the Palestinian Authority through arrangements on the ground and renewed efforts to reunite Gaza and the West Bank,” he said, adding that “it is more vital than ever that Israeli-Palestinian peace is achieved. The underlying issues must be addressed: end of conflict, end of occupation and the creation of the Palestinian State alongside a secure Israel.”

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has been distributing bread to families in the hardest-hit areas of Gaza, and said today that it urgently requires $9 million to meet additional food needs caused by the upsurge in fighting.

The bombing raids over the last week have greatly worsened the already harsh humanitarian situation in Gaza, which is home to an estimated 1.5 million people facing severe shortages of food, fuel and cooking gas.

“The current situation in Gaza is appalling and many basic food items are no longer available on the market,” said Christine van Nieuwenhuyse, WFP Representative in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Yesterday, the agency started handing out bread to around 15,000 people in the northern city of Beit Hanoun – one of the poorest areas in Gaza and the most heavily affected by the conflict.

However, the recent Israeli offensive has prevented WFP and its partners from operating at full capacity and has delayed the regular distribution of food to nearly 270,000 people in the region.

“We are responding to the immediate food emergency needs as much as we can, but the destruction of local infrastructure and the shortages of basic utilities such as fuel and gas means that more people will fall into poverty, and have no other option than to be assisted by the international community,” said Ms. Nieuwenhuyse.

WFP's 3,300-ton food stockpile will run out during the next month as distributions resume, security permitting, with more food convoys expected to replenish the supplies.

Due to the scarcity of wheat, most of the mills and bakeries in Gaza have stopped working and there is an acute shortage of bread, the staple food for Palestinians.

Although it was able to hand out some food supplies to refugees and non-refugees who queued at its warehouses, Sami Mshasha, a spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said today that “the continued bombardment of Gaza and the absence of safe passages meant that not all the refugees were able to reach these distribution centres.”

UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, added her voice to the chorus of senior officials calling for an immediate halt of military hostilities that are heavily impacting the civilian population in the area.

“We call for humanitarian assistance, including food, medical supplies and equipment to be promptly allowed into Gaza,” said Ms. Obaid in a press release issued by her office. “This is critical to address the needs of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants, especially women and children.”

Women and children were already vulnerable before the current hostilities spiraled out of control. The blockade posed particular problems for pregnant women unable to access maternal health services, which coupled with widespread poverty, resulted in high levels of anemia and malnutrition.

The current crisis is forcing more women to deliver at home, exposing them to maternal death or injury, as maternity wards are being used as surgical facilities to treat the wounded. The agency also said that displacement, following total or partial destruction of their homes, is causing untold psychological and physical damage to women and children.

In a related development, a group of independent UN human rights experts said today that it was “deeply alarmed” at the continuing violence in Gaza and called on all parties to end attacks putting civilian lives at risk.

“Both air strikes by Israeli Government forces and rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel are resulting in inexcusable loss of life and placing the civilian populations in the affected areas in extreme danger,” said Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the experts' coordinating body, said in a statement.

She stressed that international human rights law “imposes binding obligations on all parties in situations of armed conflict.”

The chairperson said that neither Israel's use of disproportionate force, missiles launched from Gaza, nor the general disregard for the safety of non-combatants can justify either side's aggression.

The UN experts voiced particular concern at the impact of the current violence and destruction of vital infrastructure on the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and called on all parties to ensure access for humanitarian relief efforts and supplies.

UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Richard Falk, told UN Radio today that although the call from the experts is important, “it comes in a way late in the day because the Palestinians, and particularly those in Gaza, have really required and deserve protection from the international community for quite some time, even before these attacks that began on 27 December.”

Independent experts, known as special rapporteurs, serve in an autonomous unpaid capacity and report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.


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