As we speak, people in Gaza are dying. They are dying only from bombs and strikes. Soon, many more will die from the consequences of siege imposed on the Gaza Strip.
Basic services are crumbling. Medicine is running out. Food and water are running out. The streets of Gaza have started overflowing with sewage. Gaza is on the brink of a massive health hazard as the risks of diseases are looming.
A few days ago, I warned that we will not be able to continue our humanitarian operations if we do not get fuel supply. My warning still stands.
Over the last few days, UNRWA has drastically limited its consumption of fuel. This came at a cost. Our team had to make tough decisions that no humanitarian worker should do.
What needs more support? Bakeries? Life support machines in hospitals? Water plants? They all need fuel to function.
The siege means that food, water and fuel – basic commodities – are being used to collectively punish more than 2 million people, among them, a majority of children and women.
There have been intensive negotiations and endless shuttle diplomacy to open a humanitarian supply line. So far, it has only resulted in a handful of aid convoys. This will not reverse the fact that Gaza is being strangled. The people of Gaza feel shunned, alienated, and abandoned.
Over the last week, I followed closely the focus on the number of trucks entering Gaza. Many of us saw in these trucks a glimmer of hope. This is, however, becoming a distraction; these few trucks are nothing more than crumbs that will not make a difference for 2 million people.
We should avoid conveying the message that a few trucks a day means the siege is lifted for humanitarian aid. It is not. The current system in place is geared to fail.
What is needed is meaningful and uninterrupted aid flow. To succeed, we need a humanitarian ceasefire to ensure this aid reaches those in need. This is not too much to ask for.
Civilians have already paid a staggering price, more than 1 million people displaced, entire neighborhood flattened, thousands killed, thousands more injured with almost no access to hospitals anymore. Under our watch.
Every day is becoming a sad day for the United Nations and UNRWA as the number of our colleagues killed increases.
Today, at least 53 colleagues of mine are confirmed killed. In one day, we had confirmations that 15 were killed.
They are mothers and fathers. Wonderful people who have dedicated their lives to their communities. If they were not in Gaza, they could have been your neighbor. One colleague died while on his way to pick up bread from a bakery. He left six children behind.
Meanwhile, we have thousands of UNRWA colleagues who, despite the fact they share the same loss, fear, and daily struggle of millions of Gazans, put on their UN vest and go to work.
They are our true heroes. Our teams are also the ones going to the borders late at night after the clearance and approval of convoys are completed. They are carrying the boxes and offloading trucks in the dark under a sky full of airstrikes and bombardments.
My Gaza colleagues are the face of humanity during one of its darkest hours.
They absorb the anxiety and anger of those who are displaced in UNRWA shelters. My UNRWA colleagues are taking the heat as the communities get – understandably- angry, hungry and frustrated.
We are almost three weeks into this war, and people are turning their despair to UNRWA. This is only normal. We are the face of the international community, the same international community which seems to have turned its back on Gazans.
It pains me that humanitarian aid, a very basic right for people, is constantly questioned while at the same time despair is live-streamed under our watch.
My colleagues in Gaza report that the last remaining public services are collapsing, our aid operation is crumbling and for the first time ever, they report that people are now hungry. Civil order is collapsing, and anger starts to be channeled towards my colleagues. How long can we last? No more than a few days.
Many argue that aid cannot enter because of aid diversion. Let me be clear. We have solid monitoring mechanisms. UNRWA is a direct provider of assistance to people in need. All our vendors and partners are vetted against the sanctions list. We give aid to those who need it most. Our convoys and their routes are notified and de-conflicted. UNRWA does not and will not divert any humanitarian aid into the wrong hands.
Finally, you have heard our repeated calls for the rules of war to be also applied to this war.
It means to apply the international humanitarian law, including the principle of proportionality and distinction. Civilians have to be spared – hospitals, schools, UN premises hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced seeking safety.
To do so, we need to see the human face of the Gazan civilians. To equal Gaza with Hamas is VERY dangerous and misleading. It is an equation aimed at de- humanizing people, aimed at making the unjustifiable justifiable. Keeping our humanity means showing that the people in Gaza deserve our empathy and our compassion.
No one can claim “I did not know”, as images, footage and voices of unspeakable suffering continue to come out by the hour from Gaza.
We cannot anymore turn a blind eye to this human tragedy. Millions of people are asking, especially in this region, even more in Gaza, “Why does the world not have the will to act and put an end to this hell on earth?”
They deserve an answer. Delaying it will deepen the polarization in the region and increase the risk of regional spillover.
Finally, as Commissioner-General, I intend to visit Gaza, to express solidarity and amplify the voice of the communities and our staff. Gaza is where I was when I started my career as a humanitarian more than 30 years ago. This is where I need to be today.
By Philippe Lazzarini
The writer is the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency