General Assembly President condemns ‘catastrophic, unconscionable, shameful’ conditions in Gaza

UN Photo/Evan Schneider A wide view of the UN General Assembly as members states meet on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

United Nations, 4 March 2024

Ambassadors in the UN General Assembly again discussed on Monday the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and the critical work of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, which is facing an existential threat, hearing a briefing by its Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, and holding a heated debate on the US veto of the latest Security Council draft resolution calling for a ceasefire in the war-torn enclave.

  • The General Assembly debated the use of veto by the United States on 20 February, with the world body’s president saying “the situation in Gaza is catastrophic, unconscionable, shameful”
  • The GA president, stressing that a ceasefire is urgently needed, said “it is essential that we rapidly and substantially increase the scale of humanitarian operations and ensure unrestricted access to all civilians in need”
  • The US representative said his delegation is working on a new draft resolution
  • Member States roundly decried the ongoing humanitarian situation in Gaza
  • The 10 non-permanent Security Council members expressed regret at the US veto, saying the 15-member organ must shoulder its responsibilities
  • In the afternoon, the General Assembly heard a briefing by UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, who described the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and the existential threat the agency is facing as it strives to deliver aid to desperate civilians
  • Opening the meeting, Assembly President Francis highlighted the mandate and work of UNRWA, urging countries to to find a permanent resolution to the “senseless and brutal conflict”
  • “We can only fear the worst is yet to come,” UNRWA’s chief tells reporters at a UN Headquarters press conference
  • For summaries of UN meetings, visit our colleagues at the UN Meetings Coverage in English and French

6:00 PM

“We can only feel the worst is yet to come,” Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, told reporters at a press conference this evening at UN Headquarters.

“We are in a situation where there is a political decision to eliminate UNRWA,” he said, citing the Israeli Prime Minister’s announcement that there is “no place” for UNRWA in Gaza as well as attempts to block and evict staff from its premises “with the aim to dismantle the agency”.

Taking reporters’ questions, he confirmed that a yet to be published UNRWA report documents experiences of those released from Israeli detention since October, including UNRWA staff, who “have been traumatized” by their “ordeal”.

“It’s a very broad range of ill treatment, and we heard stories of people being systematically humiliated, obliged to be naked, subjected to verbal and psychological abuse,” he said, providing a snapshot of the report’s findings.

Despite the ICJ’s late January order on measures to prevent genocide that called on Israel to, among other things, increase humanitarian assistance delivery into Gaza, he said aid entry into the enclave has since decreased by 50 per cent alongside a rise in alarming indicators, from the killing and injury of hundreds of hungry Palestinians queuing for aid last week to a looming famine “unfolding before our eyes”.

Regarding Israel’s fresh claims that 450 UNRWA staff are Hamas members, he noted that while the allegations are on social media, the agency has “never been informed about this”.

“Obviously, I’m frustrated,” he said, regarding the dearth of evidence to all such allegations.

Responding to a question about Israeli claims that UNRWA knew about Hamas-built tunnels under its premises, Mr. Lazzarini said that any information gathered by the agency “was shared with COGAT”, Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories.

At the same time, more than 400 people have been killed while seeking shelter in UNRWA facilities in Gaza and thousands injured, he continued, calling for a board of inquiry.

“We need to know what happened if a tunnel was discovered” under an agency building and also why so many people were killed when seeking shelter” and safety inside UNRWA buildings, he said.

He reiterated that attempts to eliminate UNRWA are not just based on the behaviour of some of its staff, but is politically driven “to eliminate the status of refugees”.

At the end of February, 84 UNRWA schools had been directly hit or damaged across the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the war.
© UNRWA At the end of February, 84 UNRWA schools had been directly hit or damaged across the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the war.

3:22 PM

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini started his briefing, noting that the agency “is at a breaking point”.

He said the suffering in Gaza is impossible to adequately describe.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini addresses the informal UN General Assembly meeting on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
UN Photo/Evan Schneider UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini addresses the informal UN General Assembly meeting on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

More than 30,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed since the war started and five per cent of the enclave’s population is dead, injured or missing. There is also a dire shortage of critical lifesaving and medical supplies, and a famine is looming.

I shudder to think of what will still be revealed about the horrors that have taken place in this narrow strip of land,” Mr. Lazzarini said.

He told Member States that on 18 January, one week before the order issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), he was informed by Israeli authorities that 12 out of 30,000 UNRWA staff were allegedly involved in the horrific attacks of 7 October.

No further information has been provided to me since that day, but the gravity of the allegations necessitated swift action. I terminated the contracts of the staff concerned in the interest of the agency,” he said, noting the ongoing investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).

“Separately, the Secretary-General commissioned an independent review of our approach to risk management and neutrality,” he added.

Mr. Lazzarini further noted that 16 countries paused their funding, totalling $450 million, despite the prompt and decisive actions and the unsubstantiated nature of the allegations.

“UNRWA has no capacity to absorb financial shocks, especially while a war rages in Gaza,” he said, noting that with funding from Member States and donors, UNRWA operations can continue and “remain a lifeline” for Palestine refugees across the region.

However, he cautioned that without additional funding, UNRWA will be in “unchartered territory, with serious implications for global peace and security”.

He said UNRWA was facing a “deliberate and concerted campaign” to undermine its operations and ultimately end them.

“Part of this campaign involves inundating donors with misinformation designed to foster distrust and tarnish the reputation of the agency,” he said, with the Israeli Prime Minister “openly stating that UNRWA will not be a part of post-war Gaza”.

Concluding his briefing, Mr. Lazzarini urged Member States to commit to a political process for peace between Palestinians and Israelis and to chart the transition of UNRWA in this context only. 

In the immediate term, he appealed to the General Assembly to bridge the gap between UNRWA’s mandate and funding, ensuring support for its operations. 

Mr. Lazzarini also urged Member States that are seeking alternatives to UNRWA to do so in a way that did not compromise Palestine refugees’ right to self-determination.

“The past 75 years have shown us that without a political solution, wars recur and generations of Palestinians and Israelis suffer. The international community has enabled this vicious cycle by failing to deliver peace for decades. This cannot continue,” he said.

Aid is distributed to displaced Palestinian families sheltering at an UNRWA school-turned-shelter in Deir  Al-Balah in central Gaza in December. (file)
© UNRWA/Ashraf Amra Aid is distributed to displaced Palestinian families sheltering at an UNRWA school-turned-shelter in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza in December. (file)

3:14 PM

Taking the floor first, Assembly President Dennis Francis warned that UNRWA “faces imminent collapse”.

The General Assembly-mandated agency has been the only lifeline for the Palestinian people, Mr. Francis said, citing UNRWA services for almost six million refugees, including schools and healthcare, in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Indeed, UNRWA has been a powerful reflection of what the United Nations stands for, he stressed.

While the agency’s mandate expires on 30 June 2026, UNRWA may not survive without immediate and decisive action, he said, noting that the agency was envisioned, at its inception in 1949, as a temporary measure awaiting the resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Highlighting ongoing investigations into Israel’s allegations that a dozen UNRWA staff members were complicit in the Hamas attacks in October, he said that in the wake of recent scrutiny, the agency must continue to discharge its mandate.

“Let us not through inertia and inaction forsake our responsibility to the Palestinian people nor dishonour the memory of the 160 UNRWA staff who have been killed in Gaza during this current crisis,” he said, calling for an immediate end to the carnage and tragedy, which has claimed far too many lives.

“Let us seize the urgency of this moment to not only support UNRWA to rebuild itself, but to find a permanent resolution to this senseless and brutal conflict,” he concluded.

3:10 PM

Dennis Francis, the President of the General Assembly, called to order an informal meeting of the plenary for a briefing on the UN agency assisting Palestine (UNRWA). Seated alongside Mr. Francis at the podium is UNRWA Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini.

Earlier on Monday, our Arabic Unit colleagues here at UN News interviewed UNRWA’s formerly Gaza-based media advisor in the region, Adnan Abu Hasna, who is currently in Cairo.

Here are some edited highlights of what he told our colleague Ezzat El-Ferri. 

Right now, the number of trucks that entered Gaza in the last few days, is about 98 trucks per day, but this is much less than hundreds of trucks needed,” Mr. Hasna said.

“Gaza used to get 500 trucks per day before the escalation in October. Unfortunately, the number of trucks that entered Gaza in February is nearly 50 percent of the number that entered in January,” he explained.


Internally displaced Palestinian children shelter in Rafah in southern Gaza.
© WHO Internally displaced Palestinian children shelter in Rafah in southern Gaza.

12:50 PM

Ambassador Amir Saeid Iravani of Iran said the US veto will be judged by history. The gravity of the situation in Gaza has garnered the international community’s attention as Israel uses starvation as a weapon of war.

Ambassador Amir Saied Iravani of Iran.
UN Photo Ambassador Amir Saied Iravani of Iran.

“The Council’s silence has become a license to kill,” he said, condemning the most recent attack on Palestinians seeking aid last Thursday near Gaza City, which killed more than 100 people.

Calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he said the US obstruction of the Algerian draft resolution runs counter the global call for ending the hostilities.

The principles of international law must protect civilians, he said, adding that a ceasefire must also prevent the starvation of Gaza’s people.

In the same vein, all provisional measures announced in late January by the world court, or ICJ, must be implemented. Considering the Council’s ongoing impasse, he said Member States are required to take steps to prevent genocide in Gaza.

12:24 PM

The suffering in Gaza cannot continue, United Kingdom Ambassador Barbara Woodward said.

Ambassador Barbara Woodward of the United Kingdom.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider Ambassador Barbara Woodward of the United Kingdom.

Last week, the UK and Jordan airdropped tonnes of lifesaving aid to the Tal Al-Hawa Hospital in northern Gaza and announced $5.4 million in additional financing to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to support more than 100,000 women and girls in the enclave, she said.

Ms. Woodward called for an urgent investigation into the deaths of people waiting for aid at a convoy last week, which she said must not happen again.

“We cannot separate what happened from the inadequate aid supplies in February,” she added, noting that only half the number of trucks crossed into Gaza compared to January.

She said this latest tragedy serves only to underscore the importance of securing an immediate end in fighting, leading to a permanent and sustainable ceasefire.

“The negotiations led by Egypt, Qatar and the US are the only way to get lifesaving aid in at the scale needed and to free the hostages currently held by Hamas,” she said. “Such a deal would offer the basis from which to achieve a sustainable ceasefire and lasting peace.”

12:05 PM

Speaking on behalf of “E-10”, the 10 elected members of the Security CouncilAmbassador Vanessa Frazier of Malta said that the draft resolution that was vetoed on 20 February was a “carefully crafted” text addressing the situation on the ground in a comprehensive manner.

Ambassador Vanessa Frazier of Malta addresses the UN General Assembly.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider Ambassador Vanessa Frazier of Malta addresses the UN General Assembly.

“All E-10 countries voted in favour […] and we deeply regret that the text was vetoed,” she said.

“As elected members, we firmly believe that the Council has the duty and the responsibility to act decisively when faced with such situation,” she said, voicing the group’s concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Ms. Frazier also noted that UNRWA – the UN agency assisting Palestine refugees – has a “central role” in ensuring an effective humanitarian response.

“Its staff has continued to play that role, even under life-threatening conditions,” she said, highlighting the impact of the conflict on civilians, in particular women and children.

She also recalled recent Security Council resolutions on the crisis, and the 26 January order issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

“We emphasize the fact that the protection of civilians is of paramount importance,” she added, stressing that all parties must comply with their obligations under international al law, including international humanitarian and human rights laws.

In conclusion, she also emphasized the importance of the two-State solution.

More than 80 UNRWA schools have been directly hit or damaged across the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the war.
© UNRWA More than 80 UNRWA schools have been directly hit or damaged across the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the war.

11:30 AM

Stavros Lambrinidis, Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union (EU), said that ending the civilian suffering and preventing further loss of lives in Gaza is an “absolute priority”.

“Too many lives have been lost already, too many more are at stake,” he said, expressing strong support for efforts by the US, Qatar and Egypt to work towards agreement on the release of hostages and a temporary ceasefire to ensure a sustained end to hostilities.

“We call on Hamas to immediately release all hostages without any pre-conditions,” he said.

Ambassador Lambrinidis also voiced the regional bloc’s deep concern over the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and stressed the need for immediate improvement of aid access over land.

He also highlighted concerns over a possible ground operation in Rafah, where over a million Palestinians are sheltering from the fighting and underscored the need to ensure full respect of international law, including international humanitarian law, by all sides.

“There must be accountability for violations of international law, on all sides,” he said.

11:20 AM

Abdullah Ali Fadhel Al-Saadi, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Yemen to the UN, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, said that the “repeated failure” of the Security Council to undertake its duties and obligations in safeguarding international peace and security and stopping the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip “is a stain on the conscience of the Council and of humanity as a whole”.

Ambassador Abdullah Ali Fadhel Al-Saadi of Yemen.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider Ambassador Abdullah Ali Fadhel Al-Saadi of Yemen.

“The draft resolution had reflected a balanced position and gave priority to humanitarian dimensions to save hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, yet it was disappointing to see a member of the Security Council using the veto right,” he said.

“This has allowed the Israeli military machine to continue its massacres against Palestinians civilians,” he added, enumerating the impact of the war on civilians, especially women and children, and the dire humanitarian situation.

He said that the continuation of the “criminal practices” required the General Assembly and UN Member States to “seriously consider” practical steps to “stop this madness and stop the Palestinian bloodshed”.

“The Arab Group demands the international community and the Security Council to guarantee the protection of civilians ensure access and delivery of humanitarian aid at an expanded level without any obstruction, and implementing Security Council resolutions 2712 and 2720,” he added.

11:13 AM

Ambassador Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani of Qatar spoke on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), noting that the failed draft resolution sought to respond to “the worst humanitarian disaster in modern history caused by the ongoing aggression launched by Israeli occupation forces”.

Ambassador Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani of Qatar.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider Ambassador Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani of Qatar.

She said the number of victims continues to grow and has exceeded 30,000, with tens of thousands more wounded and missing under the rubble, according to UN reports. Women and children comprise the majority of victims while two million people are internally displaced.

“The GCC member States reiterate their deep regret regarding the failure of the Security Council to adopt a draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, despite the fact that this draft resolution garnered the support of 13 members of the Security Council,” she said.

“This was backing away from the historic commitment in the preamble of the UN Charter that called for saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

10:51 AM

Gilad Menashe Erdan, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN, said that it has been 150 days since Hamas committed “the most brutal and barbaric massacre since the Holocaust”.

Ambassador Gilad Erdan of Israel.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider Ambassador Gilad Erdan of Israel.

“Once again, this body [General Assembly] has convened not to condemn Hamas, no. Not to condemn their atrocities, but to focus again only on the situation in Gaza, as if 7 October never happened, as if there are not 134 innocent hostages held and tortured in Gaza right now,” he said.

He noted that over the five months, “not one” discussion at the Assembly on the wellbeing of hostages or on the sexual violence perpetrated by the group.

Mr. Erdan called on the Secretary-General and the Security Council to convene immediately to “finally condemn Hamas’ heinous crimes”.

“Hamas must face unrelenting pressure to end their sexual violence and release all of the hostages immediately,” he stressed.

10:22 AM

Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine, stated that there is no greater to international peace and security than the commission of atrocities, adding that for five months now, “Israel has been committing atrocities against the Palestinian people, unchecked and unhinged.”

Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations.

“The Security Council has been prevented repeatedly from calling for an immediate ceasefire to put an end to these atrocities,” he said, emphasizing the dire impact of the conflict on Palestinian civilians, especially children, and demanding that the “war of atrocities” must stop.

“Israel must be told to ceasefire, to cease fire now,” he said.

Mr. Mansour stated that there were “reasons why ethnic cleansing” was possible in Palestine.

“It is the certainty of the perpetrators that they will never be held accountable,” he added, calling for an end to “Israeli impunity”.

“The era of Israeli impunity must come to an end, and we should enter a new era of accountability and sanctions,” he stressed.

10:19 AM

The draft resolution at hand would not have achieved the goal of sustainable peace nor resulted in a ceasefire, said Robert A. Wood, United States Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN.

Deputy Permanent Representative Robert A. Wood of the United States.
UN Photo Deputy Permanent Representative Robert A. Wood of the United States.

Indeed, his delegation had cautioned the Security Council that doing so could disrupt the intensive efforts underway to release the hostages and achieve a temporary ceasefire. Instead, the US has circulated a draft that would achieve a temporary ceasefire which would allow hostages to go home to their families and would help get aid into the hands of Palestinian civilians, who so desperately need it.

“The question before us is what is the most effective way to achieve these goals,” he said. “In our judgment, it is the work of the United States, both here in New York and on the ground.”

Washington will continue working to get more aid in as well as engaging tirelessly in direct diplomacy and negotiations on the ground, he said.

“We remain committed to engage constructively on our resolution in the days to come,” he said.

10:15 AM

General Assembly President Francis said that from the UN’s inception in 1945, the world body and the Security Council have an overarching duty to save generations from the scourge of war, and called for the international community to act now to end Gaza crisis.

“The situation in Gaza is catastrophic, unconscionable, shameful,” he said. “I am shocked and horrified at the reported killing and injury of hundreds of people during disbursement of aid supplies, west of Gaza City last week.”

This comes with a rising death toll, babies dying of starvation, and 85 percent of Gaza’s population – or 1.9 million people – are internally displaced.

Extremely concerned about pending Israeli ground operations in Rafah, where nearly 1.5 million people now reside, he urgently call for maximum restraint to prevail in order to save innocent civilian lives.

Israeli restrictions on humanitarian access have drastically reduced the flow of lifesaving aid to a mere trickle, with UNRWA reports a significant 50 per cent reduction in the number of trucks entering Gaza daily from January to February, he said.

It is therefore essential that we rapidly and substantially increase the scale of humanitarian operations and ensure unrestricted access to all civilians in need,” he said.

First and foremost, an immediate humanitarian ceasefire must be implemented and all parties must comply with their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, especially as it relates to the protection of civilians and civilian facilities.

In addition, all hostages must be immediately and unconditionally released, and full and unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance by those in need must be ensured.

The Assembly will debate the latest Council rejection of a draft resolution on a Gaza ceasefire under a mechanism that examines the use of veto in the Security Council, which can trigger an emergency special session on the matter. Read our explainer what happens when the Security Council fails to reach agreement here and on emergency special sessions here.

For weeks, the Security Council has been deadlocked over adopting a resolution to end the war, which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians and left hundreds of thousands facing severe hunger. The US has vetoed several drafts since the start of the war. The Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States) have the power to cast a veto.

Over the weekend, the Security Council issued a statement calling for immediate action to swiftly ramp up aid delivery to the enclave, especially to the devastated northern region.

That came after last Thursday’s deadly attack on hungry Palestinians waiting for aid deliveries organized by Israel, according to media reports.

In the 15-member organ’s statement, the Council expressed deep concern over reports that “more than 100 individuals lost their lives, with several hundred others sustaining injuries, including gunshot wounds…in an incident involving Israeli forces at a large gathering surrounding a humanitarian assistance convoy southwest of Gaza City.”

According to media reports, on a Saturday, a similar Israeli attack on Gazans waiting for aid left many dead and many more injured.

Later in the day, the General Assembly will hear a briefing by Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, who is expected to brief following his letter to Assembly President Dennis Francis last week.

In the letter, the UNRWA chief said the agency would soon be unable to fulfil its mandate because of funding cuts stemming from Israel’s allegations that agency workers were complicit in Hamas’s October attacks.

An aerial view of the heavily damaged and collapsed buildings in Gaza City.
© UNRWA/Ashraf Amra An aerial view of the heavily damaged and collapsed buildings in Gaza City.

The original article appeared here.

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