Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
Violence at the Gaza/Israel border
Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that on 14 May 2018, the Secretary-General had expressed profound alarm at the sharp escalation of violence in the occupied Palestinian territory and the high number of Palestinians killed and injured in the Gaza protests. He had called on Israeli security forces to exercise maximum restraint in the use of live fire and had also urged Hamas and the leaders of the demonstrations to prevent all violent actions and provocations. With tensions high and more demonstrations expected in the coming days, it was imperative that everyone should show the utmost restraint to avoid further loss of life, including ensuring that all civilians and particularly children were not put in harm’s way. The ongoing violence underscored the urgent need for a political solution. He had reiterated that there was no viable alternative to the two-state solution, with Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace, each with its capital in Jerusalem.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), made the following statement:
“Fifty-eight Palestinians were reported killed by Israeli forces during yesterday’s protests along Israel’s perimeter fence with Gaza, according to numbers from the Ministry of Health in Gaza verified by the UN. The fatalities include six children and one health worker. More than 2,700 people were also reported injured, including over 1,300 by live ammunition. There were zero reports of fatalities on the Israeli side, but one Israeli soldier was lightly wounded and was taken to hospital for treatment yesterday.
Medical facilities in Gaza are struggling to deal with the number of casualties and the Humanitarian Coordinator, Mr. Jamie McGoldrick, yesterday expressed his deep concern about the tragedy unfolding in Gaza after visiting the Shifa Hospital in Gaza.
Mr. McGoldrick said that the medical teams at Shifa are overwhelmed, dealing with hundreds of cases of injured, including women and children, and are running out of essential medical supplies. He stressed that public hospitals in Gaza have less than a week of fuel reserves to continue their operations.
Local sources estimated that around 35,000 people participated in yesterday’s demonstrations, many more than in previous weeks. Hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators marched towards the perimeter fence where they burned tires and threw rocks at Israeli forces, and flew kites with flaming materials attached to them into Israeli territory. Israeli forces responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, and by firing live ammunition, including by snipers.
Humanitarian responders have identified three areas of intervention to the growing crisis: providing immediate life-saving health care; monitoring, verifying and documenting possible protection violations; and scaling up the provision of mental health and psychological support for people injured or otherwise affected.”
Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the capacity of the health sector in Gaza was already threatened after more than ten years of blockade, with long-term shortages of essential medicines and medical equipment and disposables. In May 2018, two in every five essential drugs were completely depleted and half have less than a month’s supply remaining. Life-saving drugs used in emergency situations, such as antibiotics and adrenaline, were urgently needed. Essential life-saving medicines used in longer term health conditions such as cancer were also critically low, with 80 per cent of medications for cancer treatment depleted or with less than a month’s supply remaining. It was imperative that supplies should be allowed into Gaza and that health workers should receive protection and be paid their salaries on a regular basis. In addition, fuel was much needed to run the generators on which hospitals depended.
Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), referring to a statement from the UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, said that UNICEF had received reports of child casualties in the events of 14 May, said to be the deadliest day of violence since the 2014 Gaza war. No child should ever be the target of violence and must not be put at risk of violence or encouraged to participate in violence. The current events were a reminder of the already acute crisis in the Gaza Strip. One in four children – or 250,000 children – was in need of psychosocial support owing to past trauma; and more than half of all children in Gaza depended on some form of assistance for their daily survival.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:
“We condemn the appalling, deadly violence in Gaza yesterday during which 58 Palestinians were killed and almost 1,360 demonstrators were injured with live ammunition by Israeli security forces. Of those injured, 155 are in critical condition. Six children and a health worker were among those who lost their lives, and 10 journalists suffered injuries from gunshot wounds. The already crumbling health care system in Gaza has been placed under incredible strain and those suffering life-threatening injuries face a nightmarish scenario in the absence of adequate hospital beds and medical services. We are still witnessing cases in which injured demonstrators are effectively prevented by Israel from exiting Gaza for treatment.
The rules on the use of force under international law have been repeated many times but appear to have been ignored again and again. It seems anyone is liable to be shot dead or injured: women, children, press personnel, first responders, bystanders, and at almost any point up to 700m from the fence.
A number of the demonstrators approached the fence, threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli security forces personnel, and flew kites laden with petrol soaked material. Some tried to damage the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Others burnt tires. Israeli forces responded with tear gas, plastic bullets and various types of live ammunition, some causing horrific wounds and lifelong disability. We stress, again, that lethal force may only be used as a measure of last – not first – resort, and only when there is an immediate threat to life or serious injury. An attempt to approach or crossing or damaging the fence do not amount to a threat to life or serious injury and are not sufficient grounds for the use of live ammunition. This is also the case with regards to stones and Molotov cocktails being thrown from a distance at well-protected security forces located behind defensive positions.
Again, we call for independent, transparent investigations in all cases of death and injury since 30 March. Since 30 March, 112 Palestinians, including 14 children, have lost their lives at the fence and thousands have been injured. We are extremely worried about what may happen today – an emotional day on all sides – and in the weeks ahead. We urge maximum restraint. Enough is enough.”
Responding to questions from members of the press, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that in order to monitor possible protection violations, humanitarian responders on the ground witnessed the events first-hand and spoke to those on the scene, including demonstrators or organizations providing first aid.
Responding to questions about the role of the United Nations in seeking a solution to the current crisis, Mr. LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Secretary-General had repeatedly offered his good offices to bring the parties in conflict to the negotiating table. The United Nations offered a number of forums for discussing and finding solutions to crises. The legitimate desires of each party, including to live freely and in peace, needed to be understood. In the current situation, it was important that loss of life be prevented above all; both the Israeli security forces and Hamas and the leaders of the demonstrations had a responsibility to prevent further violence. The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, had also recently met with Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to discuss the situation in the Middle East, and had stressed the importance of calming the situation in that region. In addition, a Security Council meeting on the situation along the border between Israel and Gaza was expected to be held on Tuesday, 15 May. As expressed by the Secretary-General, the recent spate of violence made clear the need for a lasting political solution in the Middle East.
Responding to further questions from the press, Mr. Colville, for OHCHR, said that Israel had a right to defend its borders, but was under an obligation to do so in accordance with international law and principles. Under such law, the use of lethal force must only be a last resort. The number of casualties on both sides strongly suggested that the use of force by Israeli security forces was excessive. Furthermore, Israel had an obligation under international law to handle demonstrations in a way that preserved lives, unless their citizens’ own lives were very directly threatened; the mere approach of a well-fortified fence did not warrant the shooting of live ammunition. However, a proper investigation would be needed before any such claims could be confirmed. Once an investigation had been completed, it was hoped that anyone found to have breached international law or international humanitarian law, both of which applied to the recent violent events, would be charged and sentenced accordingly. He drew attention to the OHCHR press release of 27 April 2018, in which the United Nations High Commissioner had stated that in the context of an occupation such as Gaza, killings resulting from the unlawful use of force might also constitute willful killings, which were a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Although Israel had not always done so, it had on a number of occasions carried out investigations and found several members of its own security forces guilty of crimes committed in similar situations. However, as stated in the aforementioned press release, serious investigations only seemed to take place when video evidence had been gathered independently. So far, the official statements issued by Israel simply stated that Hamas was responsible for the current violence and ignored the fact that women and children and unarmed protestors were being killed in large numbers; an open, transparent investigation was therefore all the more important. He stressed that the term “genocide” should not be used lightly.
Asked whether the opening of the United States embassy in Jerusalem on 14 May 2018 was likely to have fomented the violence of the same day, Mr. Colville, for OHCHR, said that it was important to be cautious about such linkages of events. The seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel was always going to be hugely emotive both for Israelis and Palestinians. That being said, the transfer of the United States embassy to Jerusalem had not helped to reduce tensions. Quoting from the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, issued in 2004, he added that East Jerusalem remained an occupied territory and that had been a major factor in failed Middle East peace talks for decades.
Asked about the shortage of cancer medications, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that Kerem Shalom Crossing – the designated point of entry and exit for goods from Israel to Gaza – was controlled by Israel, and had been closed indefinitely following an incident on 11 May 2018, during which Palestinians had caused extensive damage to the Crossing on the Gaza side. However, Israeli authorities had indicated that the crossing would be opened for “select humanitarian needs” on a case-by-case basis and had in fact allowed seven trucks – six of them carrying medical supplies – to enter Gaza on 14 May. There was a rising need for humanitarian aid, especially medical supplies. Mr. Jašareviæ, for WHO, added that the situation was not like that observed in Syria, where items were being individually checked and sometimes removed from shipments; in Gaza, the trucks themselves were not being cleared for passage, with the reason for such refusal not always clear. He further stated that the health cluster required at least USD 5.9 million to cover the immediate emergency needs.