UN News: From the hustle and bustle of New York City to the edge of the Karura Forest in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, offices across the global UN system paid tribute on Monday to the 101 staff killed so far during the war raging in Gaza – the largest loss during a conflict in the Organization’s 78-year history.
The fallen colleagues worked for the UN agency that assists Palestine refugees, UNRWA, providing life-saving aid to Gaza’s 2.2 million people, amid constant bombardment over the past month and a complete siege of the enclave.
They were school principals, teachers, health workers, including a gynaecologist, engineers, support staff and a psychologist.
“UNRWA staff in Gaza appreciate the UN lowering the flag around the world. In Gaza however, we have to keep the UN flag flying high as a sign that we are still standing and serving the people of Gaza,” said Tom White, the agency’s Director in the Gaza Strip, speaking from Rafah
Minute of silence
UN officials and staff at duty stations worldwide observed a minute of silence in memory of their deceased colleagues, while the UN flag was flown at half-mast.
Speaking in Geneva, Tatiana Valovaya, Director-General of the UN Office in the Swiss city said their deaths represented the highest number of aid workers killed in UN history in such a short time.
“Thousands of our colleagues continue to work under the UN flag in [the] most risky parts of the world. And let’s pay tribute to their activities, to their work, to their devotion,” she said.
‘A guiding light’
The UNRWA staff members “embodied the spirit of the United Nations, standing on the frontlines of conflict zones to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance and support,” said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking at its headquarters in Geneva.
“Their unwavering dedication to peace, justice, and the well-being of others serves as a guiding light and a reminder of the importance of our shared mission,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus told WHO personnel.
Secretary-General António Guterres led the minute of silence at UN Headquarters in New York, which was held in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Chamber.
He stood before UN Resident Coordinators from around the world, who are meeting this week, flanked by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and the President of the UN General Assembly, Dennis Francis.
Meanwhile, the UN Staff Union held a ceremony in the Secretariat lobby where the names of the deceased colleagues were read aloud.
“May they rest in eternal power and peace,” said First Vice-President Francisco Brito, surrounded by staff members, some of whom held signs that said ‘responsibility to protect,’ ‘stop the killing,’ ‘protect civilians’ and other appeals.
UN flag lowered
The commemoration at the Secretariat began around 7:30 AM, with the UN flag being raised to half-mast – the sole one flying that day.
Normally all the flags of the UN’s 193 Member States and two observer States – Palestine and Vatican City – are raised each weekday morning, and in alphabetical order, then lowered in the afternoon.
The Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine, Riyad Mansour who attended the simple ceremony in front of the Secretariat, said the gesture honoured the deceased UNRWA staff members and all “Palestinian martyrs”, including thousands of children killed in the “barbaric war”.
He stressed the need for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, along with “hundreds of truckloads” of aid, medicine and water.
“And we want to stop the crime against humanity of forced mass transfer…to allow the Palestinian people to stay in the Gaza Strip. It is our homeland,” he continued. “We don’t want to live a second Nakba. We want to stay in our homeland and to rebuild the Gaza Strip.”
Mansour also expressed hope for “a political horizon” to end the occupation “so that Palestinian people can live in freedom and dignity in our independent State, with Holy Jerusalem as the capital of our State.”
UN guest house under fire
UNRWA said on Monday that its guesthouse in Rafah “sustained significant damage from Israeli Force naval strikes” on Sunday, with no reported casualties.
“The disregard for the protection of civilian infrastructure including UN facilities, hospitals, schools, shelters and places of worship is testament to the level of horror that civilians in Gaza are living every day,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini.
The UN’s health agency WHO said on Sunday night that according to the Gaza health authorities, 37 premature babies at the hospital were relocated over the weekend to an operating room without their incubators, with health workers trying to heat the room. According to the latest media reports on Monday, six babies at Al-Shifa have died.
“The world cannot stand silent while hospitals, which should be safe havens, are transformed into scenes of death, devastation and despair,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reiterating calls for an immediate stop to the fighting.
Al-Shifa is the epicentre of armed clashes in Gaza City following claims by the Israeli military that Hamas has built a command centre under the hospital. The claims have been denied by medical professionals working there.
‘Not a target’
No matter where conflicts happen, the UN has reiterated that humanitarians should never be a target, and that hospitals and medical personnel are specifically protected under international humanitarian law.
UN Humanitarian Affairs Coordination Office OCHA said in addition to the deceased infants, 10 other patients have died at Al-Shifa, while three nurses were killed amid bombing and armed clashes. Critical infrastructure, including the oxygen station, water tanks and a well, the cardiovascular facility and the maternity ward, has been damaged.
While many internally displaced persons who were sheltering at the hospital and some staff and patients have managed to flee, “others are trapped inside, fearing to leave or physically unable to do so”, OCHA said. According to media reports on Monday morning, thousands could still be inside the complex.
Other attacks on health facilities have been reported over the weekend. OCHA said that on Saturday an airstrike reportedly hit and destroyed the Swedish clinic in Ash Shati camp, west of Gaza city, where some 500 displaced persons were sheltering.
On Saturday night another airstrike hit Al Mahdi Hospital in Gaza city, reportedly killing two doctors and injuring others.
Struggle to survive
OCHA said that on Sunday, for the second consecutive day, following the collapse of services and communications at hospitals in northern Gaza, the Ministry of Health in the enclave did not update casualty figures.
The latest update provided on Friday showed that 11,078 people had been killed in the Strip since 7 October. According to Israeli official sources, 47 soldiers have been killed since the start of ground operations.
Hundreds of thousands of people remaining in the north are struggling to survive, OCHA said.
Consumption of water from unsafe sources “raises serious concerns” about dehydration and waterborne diseases, hunger is rampant, and WFP has sounded the alarm over risks of malnutrition and starvation.
Tens of thousands of displaced persons continued over the weekend to flee the north through a “corridor” opened by the Israeli military but their lives were still at risk in the south amid ongoing bombing and desperately overcrowded shelters.
“Nowhere in Gaza is safe,” UNRWA’s Lazzarini stressed, yet again.