UN, US announce 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza

The United Nations and United States announced that Israel and Hamas had agreed to a “unconditional humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza for a period of 72 hours starting today, allowing both sides to negotiate on a “durable” armistice.

A joint statement issued by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the UN representative in Jerusalem, Special Coordinator Robert Serry, has “received assurances” that all parties have agreed to an unconditional humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

The ceasefire will commence at 8 am (local time) today and will last for 72 hours unless extended. During this time the forces on the ground will remain in place.

Israeli and Palestinian delegations will immediately go to Cairo for negotiations with the Egyptian government, at the invitation of Egypt, aimed at reaching a durable truce. The two sides will be able to raise all issues of concern in these talks.

“We urge all parties to act with restraint until this humanitarian ceasefire begins, and to fully abide by their commitments during the ceasefire,” the statement said.

The ceasefire is “critical to giving innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence,” it said.

During the ceasefire, civilians in Gaza will receive urgently needed humanitarian relief and would be able to carry out vital functions, including burying the dead, taking care of the injured, and restocking food supplies. Overdue repairs on essential water and energy infrastructure could also continue during this period.

“We thank key regional stakeholders for their vital support of this process, and count on a continued collaborative international effort to assist Egypt and the parties reach a durable ceasefire as soon as possible,” Ban and Kerry said in the statement.

Earlier yesterday, Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Pierre Krahenbuhl told the UN Security Council via video conference that damage to neighbourhoods and essential infrastructure in Gaza was clear and it was past time for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.

He said despite Israel’s legitimate security concerns, the illegal blockade of Gaza must be lifted because the situation could become unlivable within just a few years adding that urgent international steps were needed to ensure security for the entire region.

He said the current reality in Gaza was unsustainable and the political and humanitarian costs grew daily as infrastructure was destroyed and international law violated. He underlined that rocket fire on Israeli cities was unacceptable and had to cease.

He described scenes from a hospital paediatric ward where he had seen injuries to children that were “the real and unacceptable consequence of an armed conflict waged with excessive — and at times disproportionate — force in densely populated urban settings.”

He said artillery fire that had struck an elementary girls’ school in Jabalaya believed to have come from the Israeli military. The school was a designated emergency shelter for displaced persons and its location well known to Israeli forces, he said, strongly condemning the attack as a serious violation of international law.

Noting the unacceptability of rocket fire on Israeli cities, he described 3 separate occasions in which UNRWA had found rockets belonging to armed groups in its empty facilities, immediately alerting all relevant parties each time.

He strongly condemned placement of weapons in UN agency facilities and said he was working to improve procedures to address such violations.

Krahenbuhl said the number of internally displaced persons was growing daily, with 2,20,000 people currently displaced. The number was four times higher than the peak number of displaced people in the 2008-2009 conflict, and UNRWA was doing everything to provide them with minimum needs.

Conditions are increasingly becoming dire in shelters, with hygiene especially worrying. Pregnant women and newborn babies were being sheltered in appalling conditions, while the ongoing hostilities severely restricted the Agency’s ability to mitigate the situation, he said.

He expressed concern about additional displacement since UNRWA was not able accommodate more people. He particularly expressed concern about the Israeli military’s recent instruction to residents in neighbourhoods of Gaza City and Khan Younis to evacuate their homes and appealed to the international community to help address the extreme situation.