Palestinians are “facing a precipice” in Gaza, the top UN refugee official there told the Security Council on Thursday in a strongly-worded appeal for action.
With more than 240,000 Palestinians already sheltering in UN facilities — four times the number from the last Gaza conflict in 2008-2009 — Pierre Krahenbuhl said he had reached breaking point.
“I believe the population is facing a precipice and appeal to the international community to take the steps necessary to address this extreme situation,” the head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA told the 15-member council.
“We have exceeded the tolerable limit that we can accommodate,” Krahenbuhl said, adding that he was “alarmed” by the latest Israeli instructions to civilians to evacuate two areas in Gaza targeted for more attacks.
“It is past time for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire as called for by the council,” he said.
Krahenbuhl spoke to the council by audiolink from Gaza after Israel vowed to press on with its military campaign, with the stated goal of destroying a network of tunnels used by Hamas.
Later on Thursday, the UN Security Council called for humanitarian pauses in Gaza and renewed its appeal for an immediate ceasefire.
The Council expressed “grave disappointment” that repeated appeals for an end to the fighting had not been heeded.
Meanwhile, UNRWA has declared a state of emergency and launched an appeal for funding.
“UNRWA urgently seeks $60 million to respond to the immediate shelter, food, health and psycho-social needs of affected families; to replenish emergency stocks; and to prepare for carrying out vital interventions that will be required immediately upon cessation of military activities,” its website said.
International alarm has grown over the civilian death toll from 24 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip, with the Security Council calling for a humanitarian truce in a statement issued early Monday.
In her address to the council, UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos called for “more humanitarian pauses” to allow relief workers to reach those in need.
“Pauses must be daily, predictable, and adequate in length so that humanitarian staff can dispatch relief to those in need, rescue the injured, recover the dead and allow civilians some reprieve so that they can restock and resupply their homes,” she said.
Amos said finding shelter from Israeli strikes was becoming increasingly difficult for the 1.8 million people of Gaza.
“The reality of Gaza today is that no place is safe,” she said.
More than 1,420 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, have died in the fighting, along with 58 Israelis, 56 of them soldiers.
The appeal to the council came a day after an attack on a UN-run school hosting refugees left 19 dead, drawing outrage from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who lashed out: “Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children.”
UN officials have called for a full investigation after an Israeli artillery strike hit the school.
Krahenbuhl described dire conditions for the shelters with very few showers and latrines, and problems with water supplies in classrooms holding 80 people.
“Disease outbreak is beginning” with cases of skin infections such as scabies while thousands of pregnant women have taken refuge in the UN schools, he said.
“We are sheltering newborn infants in these appalling conditions,” said the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinians.
“The illegal blockade of Gaza must be lifted,” he added, referring to Israeli closure of crossing points that rights groups maintain have turned the Gaza Strip into an open-air prison.
Palestinian representative Riyad Mansour renewed his appeal to the Security Council to adopt a tough resolution calling for an end to the fighting, an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and lifting of the Israeli blockade.
“Enough is enough, this genocide should be stopped immediately,” Mansour told reporters after the council meeting.
Gaza-born pop star Mohammed Assaf also appealed to the UN to act to stop the bloodshed.
“There is pain in my heart from what is happening in my town and to my people in my beloved home, Gaza that is hurting,” said Khan Younis-born Assaf, winner of the popular Arab Idol talent show, said in a video distributed by the United Nations Thursday.
“Now we all have to help my beloved people in Gaza, all those who suffer in Gaza, all those who suffer under the attacks,” said Assaf, who accompanied an airlift of humanitarian supplies from Dubai to Jordan, from where it continued to Gaza by road.
“We have to help Gaza stand up on its feet one more time,” added Assaf, who is the goodwill ambassador of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
Jordan last week circulated a draft resolution, but the council has yet to debate the measure and has instead adopted a statement calling for the humanitarian truce.
The statement was adopted despite reservations from the United States.
UNRWA’s spokesman in Gaza, Chris Gunness, broke down in tears Wednesday when Al-Jazeera television interviewed him after 16 people died in the shelling of a UN school in Gaza.
“The rights of Palestinians, even their children, are wholesale denied and its appalling,” Gunness said in a voice choked with emotion, before burying his face in his hands and sobbing uncontrollably.