The head of a United Nations agency said during an emergency meeting Monday that ‘an immediate humanitarian ceasefire has become a matter of life and death for millions.’
Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), warned against additional fighting in Gaza, where Israeli forces are launching a ground invasion to eliminate Hamas, which governs the territory.
Lazzarini warned Israel against the ‘collective punishment’ of Palestinians and said a further breakdown of civil order following the looting of the agency’s warehouses by Palestinians searching for food and other aid ‘will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the largest U.N. agency in Gaza to continue operating.’
Lazzarini, flanked by the head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and a senior U.N. humanitarian official, provided briefings to the Security Council, where the officials painted a dire picture of the humanitarian situation in Gaza after more than a million people have been displaced. The meeting comes 23 days after Hamas’ surprise Oct. 7 attacks in Israel that killed over 1,400 people.
According to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, which is run by Hamas, more than 8,300 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands have been injured since Israel launched retaliatory military action aimed at ‘obliterating’ Hamas.
UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said the death toll includes more than 3,400 children, adding that over 6,300 have been injured.
‘This means that more than 420 children are being killed or injured in Gaza each day — a number which should shake each of us to our core,’ she said.
Lazzarini added: ‘This surpasses the number of children killed annually across the world’s conflict zones since 2019. This cannot be ‘collateral damage.’’
The council remains divided on the Israel-Hamas war
Many speakers at the council meeting denounced Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attacks on Israel and urged the release of some 230 hostages taken to Gaza by the militants.
But, virtually every speaker also said Israel was responsible under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and their essentials for life, including hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
The U.S. tried to strike a balance between supporting Israel’s right to seek out and eliminate Hamas while observing and following international law to avoid civilian casualties.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said ‘the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is growing more dire by the day.’
She also said the council must call ‘for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, address the immense humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, affirm Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorism, and remind all actors that international humanitarian law must be respected.’
‘That means Hamas must not use Palestinians as human shields – an act of unthinkable cruelty and a violation of the law of war,’ the U.S. ambassador added, ‘and that means Israel must take all possible precautions to avoid harm to civilians.’
US walking a line on Israel’s right to self-defense
Thomas-Greenfield also told the council that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said ‘that while Israel has the right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism, it must do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law.’
‘The fact that Hamas operates within and under the cover of civilian areas creates an added burden for Israel, but it does not lessen its responsibility to distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians,’ she stressed.
Israel, however, pushed back on the council’s focus on Palestinian civilians and their refusal to condemn Hamas.
‘Why are the humanitarian needs of Gazans, the sole issue, the sole issue you are focused on?’ asked Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan.
The ambassador then put a large six-pointed yellow Star of David reading ‘Never Again’ on his suit jacket, as did other Israeli diplomats sitting behind him, and said: ‘We walk with the yellow star as a symbol of pride, a reminder that we swore to fight back to defend ourselves. Never again is now.’
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, also urged the Security Council to follow the General Assembly, demanding ‘an end to this bloodshed, which constitutes an affront to humanity, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and a clear and imminent danger for regional and international peace and security.’
The council meeting comes as Israel’s Netanyahu opposed a ceasefire.
‘Calls for a ceasefire are calls for Israel to surrender to Hamas, to surrender to terrorism, to surrender to barbarism. That will not happen,’ Netanyahu said on Monday.
He added: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Bible says that there is a time for peace and a time for war. This is a time for war. A war for our common future. Today we draw a line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism. It is a time for everyone to decide where they stand. Israel will stand against the forces of barbarism until victory. I hope and pray that civilized nations everywhere will back this fight.’
The Associated Press contributed to this report.