Ban launches Mideast ceasefire mission as reported Gaza death toll tops 1,000

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) holds a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt

14 January 2009 – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon began an intensive mission today to try to reach a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict, meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, as the reported death toll from Israel’s 19-day offensive against Hamas topped 1,000.

“My goal is an immediate end to the violence in Gaza – an end to Israel's military offensive and a halt to the rocket attacks by Hamas [cited by Israel as the reason for its attack]. It is intolerable that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict,” he told reporters after meeting Mr. Mubarak in Cairo, appealing to those who have influence with the parties to use all means to end the conflict and to find a durable solution.

Mr. Ban, who then went to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah, is also scheduled to confer with the leaders of Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria in an intensified drive for a diplomatic solution and relief for the humanitarian crisis now besetting Gaza, which UN officials have called “horrific” with thousands of wounded and desperate shortages of basic necessities.

“At each stop, I will repeat my call for an immediate and durable ceasefire and insist that Security Council Resolution 1860 [demanding a ceasefire] be fully respected by all the parties,” he told reporters, spelling out his agenda.

“Second, I will demand that urgent humanitarian assistance be provided, without restriction, to those in need. The United Nations' mandate is to help those who are suffering.

“Third, I will encourage diplomatic efforts underway among concerned parties, and in that regard I highly recommend the initiative of President Mubarak and the Egyptian Government officials,” he added, calling for intensified negotiations to provide arrangements and guarantees to sustain a durable ceasefire.

He said Mr. Mubarak’s efforts in this regard were crucial. Israel has demanded an end to Hamas rocket attacks and measures to cut off the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, while Hamas has called for a full withdrawal of Israeli troops and the opening of border crossings which Israel has frequently closed in response to rocket attacks, cutting of vital supplies for Gaza’s 1.5 million people.

“Sadly the horrific conflict here continues with its very deadly and destructive consequences for the ordinary people,” the Gaza Director of Operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), John Ging, told a news conference in New York by video link from ground zero, calling the destruction of infrastructure unprecedented.

According to Gazan health ministry officials, the death toll stood at 1,003, with 4,482 people wounded. Mr. Ging has previously called Palestinian casualties figures credible, with 42 per cent of the dead and nearly 50 per cent of the injured listed as women and children – mostly children.

He noted that the daily three-hour lull instituted by Israel for the delivery of food and other supplies within Gaza was not widely respected, but 103 truckloads of necessities from Israel were due in today, 12 more than yesterday, while electricity power was at 40 per cent.

He said the intensification of diplomatic efforts with Mr. Ban’s arrival in the area was widely welcomed in Gaza. “They’re delighted that he is in the region. Word has spread like wildfire. People are wanting to have some realistic basis to believe that this horrific conflict is going to end, and so many people said today that they hope the Secretary-General will succeed,” he added.

Mr. Ban is due to speak to UN relief workers in Gaza by video link tomorrow but is not at present due to visit the area personally. He told reporters that he had wanted to go but the current situation seemed to preclude a visit. He said he would send a UN relief assessment team to Gaza as soon as a ceasefire is ensured.

“We want the result of his work, of his diplomatic effort. It’s not essential that he come here physically to Gaza. He has to get us a ceasefire. Wherever he thinks he should be to make that happen, we will be very supportive,” Mr. Ging said when asked about local reaction to Mr. Ban’s absence.

Last week Mr. Ging called for an international investigation of Israel’s deadly shelling near an UNRWA school as well as the bombing of a house sheltering people fleeing the fighting. Today he was asked about Israeli claims that Hamas used civilians as human shields and operated from the area of schools.

“When I call for accountability, I’m not calling for it just on the Israeli side. We must also have effective mechanisms for accountability for those on the Palestinian side who if they’re using, and it’s proven that they have used, people as human shields, then they need to be held accountable for that to the Geneva Convention and the laws that regulate war,” he replied.

“And on the other side, if there is a case where people are being used as human shields, there is still a duty of care; it doesn’t absolve the other side from its duty of care to those who are taken hostage. We don’t in a civilized world shoot the hostage to get to the hostage taker. That’s the key point here. Both sides have to be held accountable,” he added, calling for proper investigations.

He stressed the presumption of innocence for those accused and the right to be heard for those making the allegations, emphasizing the need to be objective. “There’s a huge number of innocent civilians on the Israeli side who have lived under daily terror from rocket fire for years and this is a problem that has to be solved. It cannot go on. There is no justification at all whatsoever for firing rockets into Israel as they have been done for years,” he said.

But he added that a military solution was not an option and it had to be resolved politically, stressing this there is absolutely no justification for the illegal use of force by either side.

Meanwhile, UN agencies are focussing on the tremendous suffering of people under their mandate, with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) calling on the parties ensure the protection of children, some 300 of whom have been killed and more than 1,500 wounded. “Each day more children are being hurt, their small bodies wounded, their young lives shattered,” Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said in a statement.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) warned that the violence and displacement presented serious risks to more than 40,000 pregnant women and their babies. “Without attention to their special needs, including safe access to proper care and nutrition, many of them could suffer from silent deaths and injuries that are easily preventable under normal conditions,” said Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid.

UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes today allocated some $7 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for Gaza. “Humanitarian needs in Gaza are massive, and this funding will help jump-start urgent programmes to provide food and clean water to those seeking to survive the fighting,” he said.

The UN General Assembly is scheduled to discuss the conflict tomorrow.


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