UN chief warns of ‘clear violations of humanitarian law’ in Gaza

Antonio Guterres calls Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and subsequent civilian casualties ‘alarming’

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Wednesday 25 October 2023 12:25 BST
UN chief says Hamas terror attack did not happen ‘in a vacuum’ as Israel calls for resignation

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UN chief Antonio Guterres condemned Israel's “clear violations of international law” in the Gaza Strip as he pleaded for civilians to be protected in the war between Israel and Hamas.

The United Nations secretary-general issued his toughest statement so far on Israel's conduct in the war in Gaza at a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday as Israeli troops awaited orders to invade Gaza in the next stage of the war on the Palestinian militants.

According to Gaza’s health ministry more than 700 Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes between Monday and Tuesday – the highest 24-hour death toll since Israel began its bombardment of the Strip in an effort to crush Hamas after the group launched a surprise attack on 7 October.

The Palestinian death toll over the last fortnight has now reached 5,791, according to the Palestinian health ministry. More than 1,400 Israelis have been killed since the October attack.

Mr Guterres said protecting civilians was "paramount in any armed conflict" while expressing deep concern at the “clear violations of humanitarian law". He called Israel’s constant bombardment of Gaza and the level of destruction and civilian casualties “alarming".

Without naming Hamas directly, the UN chief also told the 15-member council that “protecting civilians can never mean using them as human shields”.

He added that it “does not mean ordering more than one million people to evacuate to the south, where there is no shelter, no food, no water, no medicine and no fuel, and then continuing to bomb the south itself".

The UN had previously warned of "devastating consequences" after the Israeli military asked over a million Gazans to relocate within 24 hours during the initial days of the war.

Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed houses after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City
Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed houses after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The secretary-general said the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify “the horrifying and unprecedented 7 October acts of terror” by Hamas in Israel and demanded the immediate release of all hostages.

He said it was "important to recognise" that the Hamas attack on Israel "did not happen in a vacuum" as the "Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation".

"But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people," he said.

An injured Palestinian man arrives at the al Shifa hospital following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City
An injured Palestinian man arrives at the al Shifa hospital following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City (AP)

His remarks triggered a furious response from Israel's UN ambassador, who called the speech "shocking".

“His statement that 'the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum' expressed an understanding for terrorism and murder,” ambassador Gilad Erdan wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It’s truly sad that the head of an organisation that arose after the Holocaust holds such horrible views.”

Israel has imposed a "total siege" on Gaza and international diplomacy has focused on getting aid to the enclave of 2.3 million people from Egypt via Rafah – the main crossing in and out of Gaza that does not border Israel.

Since Saturday, 54 trucks have crossed into Gaza carrying food, medicine and water, which Guterres described as "a drop of aid in an ocean of need".

Senior UN aid official Lynn Hastings told the council another 20 trucks were due to cross on Tuesday. But fuel has yet to be allowed in and the UN has warned that its reserves will run out within days.

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