Speaking ahead of Sunday’s grim milestone, Spokesperson Liz Throssell reiterated the need for OHCHR staff to have access to Israel and all parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territory to investigate human rights violations by all parties.
Fourteen weeks have passed since Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups carried out bloody attacks against Israel on 7 October 2023, killing 1,200 people and taking roughly 250 others hostage, 136 of whom are still believed to be in captivity in Gaza.
End the suffering
In response, Israel launched a massive and destructive military response. More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed to date, mainly women and children, while civilian infrastructure including homes, hospitals, schools, bakeries, places of worship, water systems, and UN facilities, have been damaged or destroyed. The majority of Gaza’s 2.2 million population are now displaced.
Ms. Throssell recalled that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire “to end the appalling suffering and loss of life, and to allow the prompt and effective delivery of humanitarian aid to a population facing shocking levels of hunger and disease,” adding “this is more urgent than ever.”
Addressing the conduct of hostilities, she said OHCHR have repeatedly highlighted Israel’s recurring failures to uphold the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, namely distinction, proportionality, and precautions in carrying out attacks.
War crimes risk
“The High Commissioner has stressed that breaches of these obligations risk exposure to liability for war crimes and has also warned of the risks of other atrocity crimes,” she said.
She noted that intense Israeli bombardments from air, land and sea are continuing across much of the Gaza Strip, particularly in the Deir al Balah and Khan Yunis governorates, where tens of thousands of people had previously fled in search of safety.
Meanwhile, Palestinian armed groups have continued to launch indiscriminate rockets towards Israel, some of which have been intercepted, she said.
Obligation to protect
Ms. Throssell urged the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to take immediate measures to protect civilians, in line with international law.
“Ordering civilians to relocate in no way absolves the IDF of its obligations to protect those who remain, regardless of their reasons, while carrying out its military operations,” she said.
Israel also must immediately end arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearance of Palestinians in Gaza, she added, noting that hundreds of people are reportedly being held in several unknown locations both within and outside the enclave.
Desperation and dire shortages
OHCHR also highlighted the “desperate scenario” in northern Gaza, where people face dire shortages of food, water and other basic items.
“Access to humanitarian aid remains extremely difficult, despite repeated pleas by the UN to the IDF to facilitate movement of humanitarian aid convoys,” said Ms. Throssell, before turning to the situation in the south, where over 1.3 million displaced people are now crammed into the city of Rafah, which previously had 300,000 inhabitants.
Situation in the West Bank
Moving to the West Bank, she said OHCHR has verified the deaths of 330 Palestinians, including 84 children, since the start of hostilities. The majority, 321, were killed by Israeli security forces, while eight were killed by settlers.
She added that entire herding communities have been forcibly displaced due to settler violence, which may amount to forcible transfer.
Last month, OHCHR issued a report on the West Bank which stressed the need for an immediate end to the use of military weapons and methods during law enforcement operations. It also called for an end to arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of Palestinians, and the lifting of discriminatory movement restrictions.
“Lack of accountability for unlawful killings remains pervasive, as does impunity for settler violence, in violation of Israel’s obligations as the occupying power to ensure safety of Palestinians in the West Bank,” said Ms. Throssell.
OHCHR’s office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which continues to monitor and document the human rights situation in Gaza and the West Bank, will submit two reports to the UN Human Rights Council during its next session in February in Geneva.
‘Triple threat’ for children
Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, warned against the “triple threat” of conflict, disease and malnutrition “stalking” boys and girls in Gaza.
The suffering has been too much, said UNICEF Special representative on the situation of children in the State of Palestine, Lucia Elm, speaking to journalists in Geneva.
“With every passing day, children and families in the Gaza Strip face increased risk of death from the sky, disease from lack of safe water, and deprivation from lack of food.
“And for the two remaining Israeli children still held hostage in Gaza, their nightmare that began on 7 October continues,” she said, appealing for their unconditional release.
She also spoke about how the bombardment is hampering delivery of desperately needed assistance.
“When I was in Gaza last week, we tried for six days to get fuel and medical supplies to the north and for six days movement restrictions prevented us from travelling. My colleagues in Gaza endured this same challenge for weeks before my arrival,” she said.
Ms. Elm said thousands of children have already died in the conflict and thousands more young lives are at risk unless action is taken to address the “urgent bottlenecks” of safety, logistics surrounding humanitarian aid delivery and distribution, and increasing the volume of commercial goods for sale in Gaza.
Birth amid bombardment
A senior official with the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, said on Friday he was “terrified” on behalf of the one million women in effect trapped in Gaza, including scores of expectant mothers.
Dominic Allen, UNFPA Representative for the State of Palestine, recently visited the enclave, where around 5,500 pregnant women are due to give birth in the coming month – at a time when 15 out of 36 hospitals are only partially functional, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Mr. Allen said he cannot stop thinking about the women he met, many of whom suffer from thirst, malnutrition, and lack of health.
“If the bombs don’t kill them; if disease, hunger and dehydration don’t catch up with them, simply giving life will. And we can’t let this happen,” he said, speaking from Jerusalem.
Local hospitals overwhelmed
Mr. Allen visited several hospitals in southern Gaza, including Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, where UNFPA, WHO and UNICEF have supported maternal health services for years.
The hospital was unrecognizable from his last visit, just six months ago, as 8,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) are now sheltering there. Trauma cases are “overwhelming” the maternity and other wards, forcing patients to be transferred to another nearby facility.
Meanwhile, doctors at the Emirati Hospital in Rafah are performing up to 80 births daily, 20 by Caesarean section. Capacity constraints mean that pregnant women “have to rotate in and out” of the five birthing suites.
“Women who are in their final stages of labour having to step out of that room to enable another pregnant woman to step in,” he said.
New mothers are being discharged mere hours after giving birth. Those who delivered by C-section are leaving hospital after one day, if they are able.
UNFPA assistance to Gaza includes provision of reproductive health kits, which contain various components including for emergency obstetric care. Although doctors at some hospitals said this aid is helping to save lives, Mr. Allen was told that supplies provided through the Emirati Hospital “are barely touching the ground”.
An estimated 18,000 babies have been born since the start of the conflict, based on the supplies UNFPA was able to get into Gaza “but much more is needed”, he said, appealing for safe, unhindered and rapid access to north.
He praised the UN agency that assists Palestinians, UNRWA, which is hosting more than a million people in its facilities across the Gaza Strip.
At one site that he visited – a technical college in Khan Younis housing 40,000 IDPs, including two UNFPA staff and their families – people have to queue for an hour just to use the bathroom.
The UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, reported that new evacuation orders issued by Israel on Thursday could impact thousands in southern Gaza.
Residents of the Al Mawasi area and several blocks near Salah Ad Deen Road – covering an estimated 4.6 square kilometres – have been ordered to move to Deir al Balah ahead of Israeli military operations.
More than 18,000 people and nine shelters accommodating an unknown number of IDPs are expected to be affected.
OCHA also repeated its call for access to northern Gaza. Since 1 January, only five of 24 planned deliveries of food, medicine, water and other aid has gone through, according to its latest update.