I run the UN agency for Palestine refugees. History will judge us all if there is no ceasefire in Gaza

Opinion by Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA

26 October 2023// The Guardian

For more than two weeks now, unbearable images of human tragedy have come out of Gaza. Women, children and elderly people are being killed, hospitals and schools have been bombarded – no one is spared. As I write this, UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, has already, tragically, lost 35 of its staff, many killed while in their homes with their families.

Entire neighbourhoods are being flattened over the heads of civilians in one of the most overcrowded spots on Earth. The IDF has been warning Palestinians in Gaza to move to the southern part of the strip as it bombs the north; but the strikes also continue in the south. There is nowhere safe in Gaza.

Nearly 600,000 people are sheltering in 150 schools and other UNRWA buildings, living in unsanitary conditions with limited clean water, little food and medicines. Mothers do not know how they can clean their children. Pregnant women pray that they will not face complications during delivery because hospitals have no capacity to receive them. Entire families now live in our buildings because they have nowhere else to go. But our facilities are not safe – 40 UNRWA buildings, including schools and warehouses, have been damaged by the strikes. Many civilians sheltering inside them were, tragically, killed.

Gaza has been described over the last 15 years as a large open-air prison, with an air, sea and land blockade choking 2.2 million people within 365 sq km. Most young people have never left Gaza. Today, this prison is becoming the graveyard of a population trapped between war, siege and deprivation.

For the past few days, intense negotiations at the highest levels finally allowed very limited humanitarian supplies into the strip. While the breakthrough is welcome, these trucks are a trickle rather than the flow of aid that a humanitarian situation of this magnitude requires. Twenty trucks of food and medical supplies are a drop in the ocean for the needs of more than 2 million civilians. Fuel, though, has been firmly denied to Gaza. Without it, there will be no humanitarian response, no aid reaching people in need, no power for hospitals, no water, no bread.

Before 7 October, Gaza received some 500 trucks of food and other supplies every day, including 45 trucks of fuel to power the strip’s cars, water desalination plants and bakeries. Today, Gaza is being strangled, and the few convoys now entering will not assuage the civilian population’s sentiment that they have been abandoned and sacrificed by the world.

On 7 October, Hamas committed unspeakable massacres of Israeli civilians that may amount to war crimes. The UN condemned this horrific act in the strongest terms. But let there be no shadow of a doubt – this does not justify the ongoing crimes against the civilian population of Gaza, including its 1 million children.

The UN charter and our commitments are a commitment to our shared humanity. Civilians – wherever they are – must be protected equally. Gaza’s civilians did not choose this war. Atrocities should not be followed by more atrocities. The response to war crimes is not more war crimes. The framework of international law is very clear on this and well established.

It will take genuine and courageous efforts to go back to the roots of this deadly deadlock and offer political options that are viable and can enable an environment of peace, stability and security. Until then, we must make sure that the rules of international humanitarian law are respected, and civilians spared and protected. An immediate humanitarian ceasefire must be enacted to allow safe, continuous and unrestricted access to fuel, medicine, water and food in the Gaza Strip.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN secretary-general, once said: “The UN was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” The reality today in Gaza is that there is not much humanity left and hell is settling in.

The generations to come will know that we watched this human tragedy unfold over social media and news channels. We will not be able to say we did not know. History will ask why the world did not have the courage to act decisively and stop this hell on Earth.

  • Philippe Lazzarini is commissioner-general of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees