Sliding solutions to an endless conflict

UN Secretary-General says events in Gaza have shocked and shamed the world;
calls for end to the senseless violence

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to the senseless cycle of violence and suffering in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict that has plagued the region for years. He added that the “massive deaths and destruction in Gaza have shocked and shamed the world.” Addressing the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, 6 August, at an informal meeting called for by Arab countries to draw focus on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the Secretary-General called for swift investigation of the attacks on UN premises and other suspected breaches of international law.

Ban thanked UN staff working in Gaza for their bravery and sacrifice, and said that the UN flag would fly at half-mast on Thursday, 7 August to honor the 11 UN colleagues who had died in this conflict. Referring to the nearly 90 UN buildings that were reported to have been damaged in the conflict, and the confirmed attacks on six UN schools that had killed dozens of Palestinian civilians who had sought shelter there, Secretary-General Ban said, “UN shelters must be safe zones, not combat zones. Those who violate this sacred trust must be subject to accountability and justice,” he said.

“Mere suspicion of militant activity does not justify jeopardizing the lives and safety of many thousands of innocent civilians.” He also urged the international community to support the enormous task of rebuilding Gaza, providing humanitarian aid to thousands in need and treating the wounded.

“Do we have to continue like this?” Ban said. “Build, destroy and build and destroy? We will build again, but this must be the last time to rebuild. This must stop now. Ban said the United Nations understands Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas rockets, but “the horror that was unleashed on the people of Gaza” raises serious questions about international law and distinguishing between civilians and combatants, and proportionality in attacks. People on both sides of the conflict, he said, have the right to life “free from fear.”

On Friday, 8 August, following the break-down of the latest truce, the Secretary- General condemned Hamas’ renewed launch of rockets and expressed his “deep disappointment” at the failure of Hamas and Israel to extend the 72- hour ceasefire at their talks in Cairo. “More suffering and death of civilians caught up in this conflict is intolerable, said Ban, and he urged the parties “to swiftly find a way back to respect the humanitarian ceasefire and to continue negotiations in Cairo to reach a durable ceasefire.”

The Secretary General added, “The extension of the ceasefire is absolutely essential for talks to progress and to address the underlying issues of the crisis as soon as possible.” He called on both parties “not to resort to further military action that can only exacerbate the already appalling humanitarian situation.”

Calling for the warring parties to go back to the negotiating table, Ban said, “We must spare no effort to turn the current calm into a durable ceasefire that addresses the underlying issues of the conflict.” Elaborating on his call for negotiations, the Secretary- General added, “This means ending weapons smuggling into and rocket fire from Gaza, opening its crossings, lifting Israel’s blockade and bringing the Hamas-ruled strip back under a unified Palestinian government.” Ban also called on Hamas to honor past commitments made by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, including the right of the state of Israel to exist. Meanwhile, the UN human rights chief Navi Pillay told the 193-member UN assembly that “any attacks in violation of the principles of international law, on civilians, homes, schools and hospitals, must be condemned, and may amount to war crimes.” She told the assembly by videoconference that the casualty toll in this conflict — nearly 1,900 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, and 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians — tops conflicts in 2008-2009. Pillay stressed that there has been no accountability for the conflicts in 2008-2009 and in 2012.

She said the UN Human Rights Council’s new Commission of Inquiry will present a report in March 2015. Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner general of the UN Reliefs and Works Agency (UNRWA), warned the assembly that even once a durable cease-fire has been reached, Palestinians will be in dire need of assistance, as many of them will return to destroyed homes with no water or electricity. Speaking about the “utter devastation” in Gaza, the deputy humanitarian chief of UN, Kyung-wha Kang, said the United Nations and its partners have appealed for $367 million to address immediate needs for over 500,000 people — more than one-quarter of Gaza’s 1.8 million population — who “fled for their lives with nothing.” The UN also reported that over 10,000 housing units were destroyed or severely damaged in the current conflict.

Kang painted a grim picture of the situation in Gaza: 144 schools and other facilities damaged; a public health system “on the verge of collapse” with one-third of hospitals, 14 primary health care clinics and 29 ambulances damaged; more than one million people without access to water and very limited electricity; and the prevalence of unexploded ammunition.

Kang said the lack of electricity means hospitals cannot power critical machinery, food production will decrease and water and sewage cannot be pumped. Sewage backups could contaminate water, making the outbreak of disease “a very serious risk,” she said. Kang added that at least 122 Palestinian families lost three or more family members. Robert Serry, UN special envoy for the Middle East Peace Process, told the UN assembly that solutions addressing the root causes of the conflict have been identified, but have yet to be implemented.

“The basic equation is: end the blockade on Gaza, address Israel’s legitimate security needs,” Serry said. The Palestinians want Israel to end its crippling eight-year blockade on the Gaza Strip, among other demands, before they would agree to any longterm cease-fire. Israel is conditioning ending the blockade on disarming all militants in the Gaza Strip and dismantling their weapons, mainly the missiles they fire across the border. Riyad Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the UN, where the country has non-member permanent observer status, said the “barbaric Israeli military campaign” has caused “unbearable inhumane conditions” in Gaza and thanked the UN for providing a “lifeline.” Mansour noted that there was “no symmetry” in the conflict, saying that Israel’s “premeditated military aggression” was not justified by its right to selfdefense.

Ron Prosor, Israeli ambassador to the UN, said Israel did everything to avoid the current conflict, noting that it was Hamas that rejected every offer of a cease-fire. He also said that disarmament of Hamas is the only way to achieve sustained quiet in Israel and Gaza, and that Hamas is committing a double war crime: Targeting Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians.

Footnote: The temporary truce between the two sides that came into effect at 8am local time on Tuesday, 5 August, has not been extended as Palestinian militants began firing rockets on Friday morning, shortly after the end of the three-day truce. Israeli forces have responded with air strikes across Gaza. Some 1,940 lives have been claimed in four weeks of fighting in Gaza. At least 1,890 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died, according to latest UN figures. Israel’s government says 64 soldiers have been killed, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai national. Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on 8 July with the stated aim of halting rocket fire from militants in Gaza and destroying the network of tunnels it said were used by militants to launch attacks inside Israel.