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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing. In attendance were spokespersons and representatives of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the United Nations Children's Fund, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Organization for Migration.

Situation in Gaza and the West Bank

Opening the briefing, Ms. Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, reminded that the Secretary General had held, last night, a press stakeout following the ceasefire announcement between Gaza and Israel. Mr. Guterres had welcomed the ceasefire and had extended his deepest condolences to the victims of the violence and their loved ones. He had commended Egypt and Qatar for the efforts carried out, in close coordination with the UN, to help restore calm to Gaza and Israel. The Secretary General had called on all sides to observe the ceasefire. He had underscored the United Nations’ deep commitment to working with Israelis and Palestinians to return to the path of meaningful negotiations to end the occupation and allow for the realization of a two-State solution on the basis of the 1967 lines, UN resolutions, international law and mutual agreements.

Matthias Schmale, Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Gaza, speaking from Gaza City, first expressed an enormous sense of relief at the ceasefire that had put an end to eleven days of carnage and war, and hoped that it would stay that way. As a humanitarian, Mr. Schmale said action would concentrate on the unbearable and unacceptable costs this situation had for all civilian population, including in Israel.

After the end of military activities, going “back to normal” in Gaza still had elements that were not “normal”. First, these days of war might had started a third wave of COVID-19, precautionary measures being not adhered to. Secondly, going back to normal life meant having to take care of unexploded devices; UNRWA could not simply rush back to its buildings and schools. Thirdly, UNRWA was convinced that war would be back if the underlying causes were not addressed: from the Gaza perspective, that meant giving people, especially young people, a dignified perspective for a dignified life.

UNRWA team were heroes over what they did the last few days, Mr. Schmale stressed. The situation was admittedly worse than 2014 in intensity and terror, if not in the number of lives lost. Severe trauma had been inflicted on the population, including on UN staff working in Gaza.

There were now three priorities: finding ways to support the homeless; beginning a serious assessment of the destruction inflicted on physical infrastructure, before building back; and, finally, recognizing that the population was terrified and traumatized, having been submitted previously to three other wars, the COVID-19 pandemic and now this conflict. It was not possible to look at the situation just as physical rebuilding: it was about rebuilding lives.

Lucia Elmi, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Special Representative to the State of Palestine, hoped that a resolution to the ongoing violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and its causes, could be found as soon as possible.

Over the past 11 days, at least 65 Palestinian children had been reported killed and another 540 injured; in Israel, two children had been reported killed and 60 injured. A high number of people had been forced to flee their homes in search of safety and at very short notice. More than 9,000 families were taking refuge in UNRWA schools.

No place was safe for children across the Gaza Strip. Even before the current wave of violence 1-in-3 children required mental health and psychosocial support. This number had undoubtedly increased markedly in the past few days. This had caused a deep trauma that would have to be addressed.

UNICEF had provided essential medicines including saline solution, glucose, antibiotics, and other medical consumables, as well as water tanks and education kits. What was needed now was a lasting cessation of hostilities by all parties; and, importantly, for the sake of all children and their future, a long-term peaceful solution to the seven-decade-long conflict. Any political solution that would be reached should not and could be “going back as it was before”, as “before” was unbearable and unsustainable for all children.

The full briefing can be found here.

Fabrizio Carboni, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Regional Director for Near- and Middle East, hoped the ceasefire would hold and be accompanied by a credible political process. Today, the focus should be on reconstruction, recovery, and healing. The damage inflicted in less than two weeks would take years, if not decades, to rebuild. Every conflict in Gaza took people ever lower, causing huge frustration and a crisis of hope. When there was no hope, it became very dangerous for all of us. Some families who had their homes destroyed in 2014 were still housed in temporary rentals supplied by aid organizations.

The ICRC was looking at meeting emergency needs like surgeries and water and energy repairs. But a focus on long-term needs was also need, like rebuilding infrastructure and crucial mental health support. Gaza needed extra medical supplies to support an already-fragile health system under immense strain, coping with the spread of COVID-19. Gaza also needed repairs to its water system, wastewater system and power network – around 700,000 Palestinians were affected by damage to power and electricity infrastructure, with water supply decreased by 40%. Thousands of people had lost their homes, businesses and places of work. They would need huge support to get back on their feet.

Farmers couldn’t access their land, animals or crops since the escalation; there were serious fears harvests might be lost. Weapons contamination was also a lingering threat to lives, with several hundred unexploded ordnances littering the Gaza Strip.

Attention of the media and of the states during violent crises was not enough: most operations in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel were underfunded, which was a signal. The challenge would be funding the reconstruction.

The full briefing can be found here.

Answering questions from journalists, Ms. Vellucci said the UN Secretary General, in his remarks before the General Assembly meeting on the situation in the Middle East and Palestine, yesterday, had indeed expressed his deep concern over “the continuation of violent clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, where several Palestinian families are under the threat of eviction”. Ms. Vellucci added the Secretary General would launch, with Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock, a full humanitarian appeal for funding as soon as possible; in the meanwhile, to meet immediate needs, Secretary-General Guterres was working on an allocation from the Central Emergency Response Fund; the Humanitarian Coordinator intended to release $14m from the Humanitarian Fund for the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In answers to other questions, Mr. Schmale said UNRWA suffered chronic underfunding for its work on education and other core services. On the other hand, it was too early to put a price-tag on the cost of reconstruction after the last round of violence: a damage-assessment would need be needed first. For reconstruction, the main constraint would be finding the necessary resources. Mechanisms were in place between UNRWA and Israel to allow some materials to be imported into Gaza; other UN agencies also had agreements.

A crossing point had been very recently reopened for a limited time, Mr. Schmale noted in response to question on medical supplies availability in Gaza. With stocks available and crossing points open, ICRC was confident it would be able to bring in medical supply, Mr. Carboni said.

In answer to questions, Mr. Carboni said the lifting of the blockade on Gaza would have to be part of a political settlement. Humanitarian support should not be affected by the blockade. With or without blockade, humanitarian room and space were needed to import what was needed in Gaza. This required a level of trust that the work of ICRC and other organizations was only for humanitarian purposes. ICRC was discussing the humanitarian dimension on a bilateral basis with all states and parties involved. Mr. Carboni also said the ceasefire was but a step towards a political resolution to the crisis. He condemned attacks on voluntary staff of the Palestinian Red Crescent and Magen David Adom

Also answering questions, Ms. Elmi stressed this was a protracted crisis, and needs were there before. The UN humanitarian community stood together, as befit the “One UN” approach, along with the valuable work of the humanitarian partners.

Margaret Harris, for the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that some 275 people had died, with more than 8,000 injured requiring treatment in the occupied Palestinian territory and Gaza. 46% of essential drugs were lacking and entry of medical supplies was crucial. At least 17 primary healthcare centers had been damaged; the central laboratory for COVID testing had been badly hit and needed repairs. .

Other WHO information

Answering other questions from journalists, Margaret Harris, for the World Health Organization (WHO) said that according to the new World Health Statistics published today, based on the excess mortality estimates for 2020, the 3.4 million COVID-19 deaths currently reported to WHO were likely to be a significant undercount, with true figures at least 2-3 times higher. She also announced that Dr. Tedros would be speaking at Global Health Summit taking place in Rome, later today.

2021 Hurricane season and increasing temperatures in the Arctic

Clare Nullis, for World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said another above-normal Atlantic hurricane season was expected in 2021, even as many communities in the Caribbean, Central America and United States of America were still recovering from the record-breaking 2020 season, compounded by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Atlantic hurricane season would officially begin on 1st June and last until 30 November. The past six seasons had all seen above average activity, causing hundreds of casualties and billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Ms. Nullis pointed to a new list of cyclone names for 2021.

Ms. Nullis also noted that while it was cool now in Geneva, it was overly hot in other places, including Russia and the Arctic region, where temperatures of above 30° C had been seen this week. Temperatures in the Arctic had risen three times as fast as in other parts of the world. No one on Earth was immune to Arctic warming, whose effects were felt far beyond, including the impacts of global sea-level rise, the opportunities and risks associated with the opening of new shipping routes and improved access to fossil fuel reserves, and the potential for feedbacks that affected atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. For further details, see here.

WMO would issue a press release about new climate predictions for the next five years.

COVID-19 Response Plan for Nepal, May 2021

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said Nepal was facing a breaking point amidst its worst COVID-19 outbreak. Nepal was experiencing roughly the same number of daily cases per capita as India, but with a health system whose capacity was much more limited. The UN and its partners were therefore launching today the “Nepal Covid-19 Response Plan” calling for US$ 83.7 million to assist 750,000 of the most vulnerable people affected by the pandemic over the next three months.

In Nepal, millions of people were struggling with the direct health impact of COVID-19, hunger, malnutrition, devastating economic losses, and other health needs that were being overlooked. The current outbreak was having a devastating impact not just on health but across all sectors, hitting the poorest and most marginalized people in Nepali society the hardest. The COVID-19 Response Plan called for action and international solidarity that was needed to save lives and prevent unnecessary suffering today, tomorrow, and in the difficult weeks to come.

A press release had already been sent to journalists and could be found here. More information on the COVID-19 Response Plan for Nepal is to be found here.

Situation in Ceuta and Spain

Answering a journalist’s question, Safa Msehli, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the IOM was following with great concern the situation in Ceuta and Spain. It had noticed the increase in overall arrivals in the European Union via sea routes. However, these arrivals were still manageable through better migration governance and better show of solidarity. IOM teams were following-up on the situation.

Geneva Announcements

Ms. Vellucci, for the UN Information Service (UNIS), reminded that today, 21 May, was International Tea Day. Journalists had received an invitation to a virtual celebration organized by the FAO.

On World Day for Cultural Diversity and Dialogue for Development, also taking place on 21 May, the Secretary General had issued a message stressing that “As vaccines [against COVID-19] generate hope, the world must ensure that pandemic recovery packages encompass the needs of cultural institutions”. The President of the General Assembly would hold a High-level Event on Culture and Sustainable Development” today at 10 a.m. (New York time) that could be watched on webtv.un.org.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child would be concluding, today at 2 p.m., the review of the report of Luxembourg.

The Conference on Disarmament was holding today (10 a.m.) its last public plenary meeting under the presidency of Bulgaria; Cameroon would then assume the presidency of the CD until 18 June. The Conference would hold a public meeting next Tuesday, 25 may (10 a.m. - noon).

Finally, Ms. Vellucci reminded that the Human Rights Council would hold, next week, a special session on the “Grave Human Rights Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem” (Thursday, 27 May, starting at 10 a.m.)

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