Humanitarian Organizations Demand Action to Respect Palestinian Rights

United Nations

Francesca Albanese, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Palestine, warned on October 14 that "Palestinians are in grave danger of mass ethnic cleansing" and called on the international community to "urgently mediate a ceasefire." "There is a grave danger that what we are witnessing may be a repeat of the 1948 Nakba, and the 1967 Naksa, yet on a larger scale. The international community must do everything to stop this from happening again," Albanese said, noting that Israeli officials have openly advocated for another Nakba. "The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel has reached fever pitch," Albanese said, adding, "The United Nations and its Member States must intensify efforts to mediate an immediate ceasefire between the parties, before we reach a point of no return." "In the name of self-defence, Israel is seeking to justify what would amount to ethnic cleansing," Albanese stated, calling on the international community to "stop these egregious violations of international law now, before tragic history is repeated."

As of October 14, the UN reports that 2,200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes, citing figures from Palestinian authorities. As of October 13, the UN had reported that at least 423,000 people in Gaza had been displaced, a figure released prior to the demand by the Israeli occupiers that the 1.1 million people in the north of the Gaza Strip evacuate. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) posted an October 14 press release from Euro-Med Monitor in which the organization said it had "documented the displacement of over 820,000 individuals to UN-affiliated schools, governmental schools, and the homes of relatives and neighbors. More than 450,000 people were displaced after their homes were destroyed or damaged in Israeli air raids."

An Israeli order for Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza was relayed to UN officials in New York late on October 12, as Israel has said fleeing Palestinians will not be allowed to return "until we say so." UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said of the order, "The United Nations considers it impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences."

News reports indicate that those attempting to comply with the order have not been given safe passage and are being bombed by Israeli fighters.

The World Health Organization elaborated on the impossibility of such an evacuation in an October 13 statement, which said in part, "WHO joins the wider United Nations in appealing to Israel to immediately rescind orders for the evacuation of over 1 million people living north of Wadi Gaza. A mass evacuation would be disastrous -- for patients, health workers and other civilians left behind or caught in the mass movement.

"With ongoing airstrikes and closed borders, civilians have no safe place to go. Almost half of the population of Gaza is under 18 years of age. With dwindling supplies of safe food, clean water, health services, and without adequate shelter, children and adults, including the elderly, will all be at heightened risk of disease.

"The Palestinian Ministry of Health has informed WHO that it is impossible to evacuate vulnerable hospital patients without endangering their lives. Vulnerable patients include those who are critically injured or dependent on life support. Moving them amid hostilities puts their lives at immediate risk."

Israel drops leaflets demanding Gazans flee from the north of the Gaza Strip to the south, October 12, 2023.

WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said on October 13 that the health system in Gaza is at a "breaking point." The two major hospitals in the north of the Gaza Strip, the Indonesian Hospital and Shifa Hospital, had already exceeded their combined 760-bed capacity and the hospitals in the south of Gaza were also "overflowing."

Six of the seven main hospitals in Gaza are only partially functioning, he added.

He stressed that moving vulnerable patients such as those critically injured and adults, children and newborns depending on life support in intensive care, would be a "death sentence" and that "Asking health workers to do so is beyond cruel."

Jasarevic conveyed that health workers on the ground report dead bodies "piling up" as there is no more space in the morgues, and ambulances and doctors have to make a "horrific choice" as to who to save and who to leave behind.

He added that as of October 12, 34 attacks on health care centres in the Gaza Strip had been confirmed since the beginning of the current Israeli offensive, resulting in the deaths of 11 health care workers on duty. The Gaza Emergency Operation Centre, supported by WHO, has sustained heavy damage, he said.

In an October 14  press release the WHO calls for "Israel to immediately reverse evacuation orders to hospitals in northern Gaza, and calls for the protection of health facilities, health workers, patients, and civilians. WHO also reiterates its calls for the immediate and safe delivery of medical supplies, fuel, clean water, food, and other humanitarian aid into Gaza through the Rafah crossing, where life-saving assistance – including WHO health supplies that arrived earlier today – is currently awaiting entry."

Israeli attacks on medical personal in Gaza include an airstrike on an ambulance on October 11, 2023, three paramedics are killed. Damage to Al-Awda Hospital from an airstrike, October 11, 2023. 

UN relief chief Martin Griffiths tweeted that "the noose around the civilian population in Gaza is tightening," asking how such a huge number of people could possibly move across a "densely populated warzone" in just 24 hours.

On October 14, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said in a press release in which it reminded Israel that "Wars have rules. Civilians, hospitals, schools, clinics and United Nations premises cannot be a target. UNRWA is sparing no efforts to advocate with parties to the conflicts to meet their obligations under international law to protect civilians, including those seeking refuge in UNRWA shelters.

"UNRWA shelters in Gaza and northern Gaza are no longer safe. This is unprecedented. 

"This war should be no exception, protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, including United Nations buildings, applies to this conflict too.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head UNRWA, warned on October 13 that the relocation order "will only lead to unprecedented levels of misery and further push people in Gaza into an abyss."

UNWRA tweeted later on October 13 that Gaza was "fast becoming a hell hole and is on the brink of collapse. There is no exception, all parties must uphold the laws of war." On October 12, UNWRA tweeted that 12 of its personnel had been killed in the Israeli offensive.

An October 11 press release gives a sense of the scale of destruction and of Israel's indiscriminate bombing campaign and the rapidly increasing number of internally displaced persons: "Nearly 218,600 internally displaced people (IDPs) are sheltering in 92 UNRWA schools in all areas in the Gaza Strip. The number of IDPs in UNRWA emergency shelters continues to increase on a daily basis as airstrikes and shelling by Israeli Forces continue across the Gaza Strip.

"In addition, many other people are displaced in government schools and other buildings. In total, at least 340,000 Palestinians have been displaced across the Gaza Strip." By October 12, this figure had increased by another 90,000 people, for a total of at least 430,000.

To understand the scale of the current displacement of 430,000 people, the 1948 war ended with Israeli forces controlling approximately 78 per cent of historical Palestine. The remaining 22 per cent fell under the administration of Egypt and Jordan. This dispossession of the Palestinian people on which the Israeli state is based is referred to as the Nakba ("The Catastrophe"). In 1967, Israel absorbed the whole of historical Palestine, as well as additional territory from Egypt and Syria. It led to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, at which time 350,000 Palestinians were displaced. This is referred to as the Naksa.

The massive campaign of indiscriminate Israeli airstrikes continues on October 14, 2023.

The UNRWA October 11 press release continues: "Over 5,300 UNRWA staff are responding to the emergency under extremely challenging circumstances. Many roads have been destroyed or have become inaccessible due to debris and ongoing airstrikes are limiting movements.

"Shelters are overcrowded and have limited availability of food, non-food items and potable water. A water crisis is looming in UNRWA emergency shelters and across the Gaza Strip due to damaged infrastructure, lack of electricity needed to operate pumps and desalination plants, and limited supply of water in the local market. Water supplies cannot be replenished due to the total blockade on the Gaza Strip by the Israeli authorities. Fuel cannot be brought in and Israeli water suppliers can no longer deliver water in Gaza. An Emergency Water Task Force was established to explore solutions for potable water supplies in shelters and beyond in coordination with UNICEF and OCHA [the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs].

"There is no humanitarian access for food or other essential supplies.

"In coordination with the World Food Program (WFP), bread was distributed to the displaced people in the shelters. UNRWA is distributing other food to displaced families.

"Today, one UNRWA health centre in Gaza area was affected by airstrikes, bringing the total number of installations affected by the conflict to 21 since October 7."

UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson James Elder briefed reporters in Geneva on October 13, and said the humanitarian situation has now reached "lethal lows." He highlighted that the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on the planet and people, including hundreds of thousands of children, are finding themselves "with nowhere safe to go."

OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke also underscored the impossibility of relocation, asking, "[I]n the middle of a war zone where people are already at the end of the rope, how is that going to happen?"

He also insisted on the urgency of humanitarian access to Gaza as all supplies were rapidly depleting. "We're pretty much locked out," he said.

On October 12, the UN launched a flash appeal for $294 million for 77 humanitarian partners to address the most urgent needs of 1.26 million people in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. "This is a response to an escalation that has put civilians in a situation in which they should never be," Laerke said about the appeal. "The most urgent priority is now to de-escalate," he added.

International Committee of the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also denounced Israel's evacuation order. In fact, the evacuation order forced the ICRC into making a rare public statement on October 13, calling for a pause in the fighting and questioning the legality of such an announcement. "Instructions issued by the Israeli authorities for the population of Gaza City to immediately leave their homes, coupled with the complete siege explicitly denying them food, water, and electricity, are not compatible with international humanitarian law." Israel's siege has cut off electricity, water, fuel, food and the delivery of any supplies into the Gaza Strip. The intentional starvation of a civilian population as a war tactic is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Médecins Sans Frontières

On October 13, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a statement condemning Israel's evacuation warning, saying that "this represents an attack on medical care and on humanity." "We are talking about more than a million human beings. 'Unprecedented' doesn't even cover the medical humanitarian impact of this. Gaza is being flattened, thousands of people are dying, this must stop now. "We condemn Israel's demand in the strongest possible terms," Meinie Nicolai, MSF director general, said in the statement.

Matthias Kennes, MSF Head of Mission in Gaza, said on October 12, "The fighter jets are demolishing entire streets block by block." He added, "There is no place to hide, no time to rest. Some places are being bombed on consecutive nights."

"We know what it was like in 2014 and in 2021, thousands died. Each time, our medical colleagues go to work, not knowing if they will see their homes or their families again," continued Kennes. "But they say this is different. This time, after five days, there have already been 1,200 deaths. What can people do? Where are they supposed to go?"

MSF states in a press release, "Millions of men, women and children are facing a collective punishment in the form of total siege, indiscriminate bombing, and the pending threat of a ground battle. Safe spaces must be established, humanitarian supplies must be allowed into Gaza. The wounded and sick must receive medical care. Medical facilities and personnel must be protected and respected; hospitals and ambulances are not targets."

The MSF press release continues:

"The siege imposed by the Israeli government, including the withholding of food, water, fuel, and electricity is unconscionable. Following 16 years of military blockade of the Gaza strip, the medical facilities within are already weakened. This siege leaves no respite for patients caught up in the fighting, nor for medical staff. It represents an intentional block on life-saving items; the entry of these supplies and key medical staff must be facilitated urgently."

Tens of thousands of Gazans flee the north of the Gaza Strip on foot and by car, October 14, 2023.

(With files from UN News Agency, MSF, news agencies. Translations from original Spanish by TML.)

This article was published in
Volume 53 Number 13 - October 2023

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