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Humanity must prevail in Gaza

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The writers are the UN Relief and Works Agency commissioner-general and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs emergency relief co-ordinator

As we write this today there is no water or electricity in Gaza. Soon there will be no food or medicine either. An unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes. Every hour we receive more desperate calls for help from people across the Gaza Strip.

Over 2mn Palestinians live in Gaza. More than half are children. All are now subjected to the siege, further tightening a 16-year-old blockade. Israel’s order to all Palestinians living in northern Gaza and Gaza City to move to the southern part of the strip triggered an exodus towards an already massively overcrowded area. And there is nowhere else to go.

Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world. The 365 square kilometre area is bordered on one side by the sea, the other side is controlled and fenced by Israeli security forces. The remaining border with Egypt is closed for people fleeing the war and in between the area is bombarded — there is no safe place.

The death toll is rising and hospitals are flooded with wounded and injured people in need of immediate and at times complicated surgery. Thirteen UNRWA staff have been killed; UN premises have been damaged, including medical facilities; and currently more than 500,000 people are sheltering in UNRWA schools.

What is taking place in Gaza may amount to collective punishment for the atrocities carried out by Hamas on October 7.

Last week’s attack on Israelis was horrendous — devastating images and testimonies continue to come out. Killing and maiming civilians and taking them hostage is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes. Hamas must be held legally accountable for its actions.

But the answer to killing civilians cannot be to kill more civilians. Imposing a total siege and bombarding civilian infrastructure in a densely populated area is not the solution. It will not bring peace and security to Israelis and to the region. This war comes from deep underlying grievances on both sides and only intense and genuine negotiations can make the changes that are required.

The laws of international armed conflict set minimum standards for the conduct of all parties with one consistent and permanent goal: to reduce the human suffering caused by conflict. The Fourth Geneva Convention relates specifically to the protection of civilians during times of war. This is in recognition that civilians and those taking no active part in the conflict — men, women and children — bear no responsibility for the conduct of parties to the conflict and must not be targeted in retaliation.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure and attacks that do not discriminate between legitimate military targets and civilians. Attacks must not result in disproportionate loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects even where there is a military objective, and collective punishment is prohibited. Violation of these fundamental obligations can constitute international crimes including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

People in Gaza feel desperate — and abandoned by the international community. They are asking “Where is the UN and where is UNRWA?” The UN is in Gaza. UNRWA alone has more than 13,000 staff working round the clock with very limited resources that may run out at any time. Even if the siege is lifted we do not have the resources to meet the immense need for water, food, medicines and psychological help. The UN cannot supply the civilian population even with basic life-saving materials unless it receives significant support. We call on all member states of the UN to express solidarity for UNRWA during this time.

Israel-Hamas war

But above all, we must act — we all have a duty, both moral and in law, to protect civilian populations. International law and respect for human life is never more important than in moments of despair, anger and polarisation.

A humanitarian suspension of hostilities must take place without delay to spare the loss of more lives. Israel must stop the siege, stop indiscriminate bombardment of civilians and facilitate a humanitarian corridor. Hamas must release all hostages unharmed immediately.

Humanity must prevail. Otherwise there will be tragic consequences for the years to come, in Gaza, the region and beyond.

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