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Sheltering civilians

Exploding refugee numbers, Israeli attacks challenge UN agency in Gaza

As the United Nations Human Rights Council held a meeting to discuss the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the Swiss head of the UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees said the crisis goes far beyond anything his organisation prepared for and that Israel should do more to protect innocent civilians.

Pierre Krähenbühl, who’s headed the UN Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for about three months, says the organisation prepared for an influx of 35,000 to 50,000 Palestinian refugees from the latest fighting, based on numbers from previous conflicts. But refugee numbers in Gaza have swelled from 17,000 to 100,000 in less than a week.

“We can’t simply envision a return to the status quo,” Krähenbühl told the Le Temps newspaper. “After eight years of a blockade, the current situation is no longer sustainable in human terms.”

Krähenbühl pointed out that UNRWA helped 80,000 people in Gaza in the year 2000; today, the agency is assisting some 830,000.

The agency’s work on the ground in Gaza is being complicated by the fact that Israel suspects Hamas militants of hiding in UNRWA facilities and are bombing them as a result. Krähenbühl says that to date, 77 of the agency’s refugee clinics, schools and shelters have been damaged by Israeli rocket fire and one school took a direct hit, seeming to have been specifically targeted.

The agency head confirms Hamas fighters were found to be using UNRWA facilities in two cases, which he calls “unacceptable”. But he adds that “it’s clear, in the current dynamic, that these cases are being used for other purposes”.

When asked whether he believes the Israeli army is doing all it can to minimise civilian casualties, Krähenbühl answered “it’s very, very clear that additional measures need to be taken”.

“Every military operation of this kind carries with it enormous risks for civilians in a context like Gaza,” he said. “But that can’t be an excuse to consider the deaths and injuries of civilians inevitable”.

UN resolution talks

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council, which met in Geneva on Wednesday, has launched an international inquiry into human rights violations and crimes that may have been committed by Israel during its military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The council condemned the Israeli assault which it said had involved "disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks", including aerial bombing of civilian areas, collective punishment, and the killing of more than 650 Palestinians.

At the end of an emergency session, the 47-member forum adopted a resolution presented by Palestinians by a vote of 29 states in favour, one against (the United States) with 17 abstentions (including all nine European Union members).

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