U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres renewed his appeal Thursday for a humanitarian cease-fire before a “gigantic tragedy” develops in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where Israel’s military is reported to be planning to expand its offensive.
“Looking into the situation in Rafah, where you have now more than half the population of Gaza that were pushed there — they didn’t go because they wanted to, they were pushed there,” Guterres told reporters.
“Looking at that situation, it is time to have a humanitarian cease-fire before a gigantic tragedy develops in Gaza — if we have the same kind of intensity of military operations in Gaza as we’ve seen in Khan Younis and other parts of Gaza’s territory.”
More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million people have crammed into the city along the border with Egypt in search of safety, despite some Israeli strikes there.
At the White House, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the Biden administration has not seen any convincing signs that Israel is about to conduct imminent military operations in Rafah.
But on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to signal an operation, saying at a news conference that his government had “instructed the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] to operate also in Rafah,” as it is one of the “two last strongholds of Hamas” — Khan Younis being the other.
Some in Israel have suggested that Egypt should open its border to admit fleeing Gazans, an idea Guterres rejected.
“I think that we should push to avoid a tragedy, instead of pushing for things to facilitate a tragedy,” he said.
The U.N. chief also questioned the force Israel’s military is using in Gaza, noting that Israeli leaders have said they are fighting Hamas and not the Palestinian people.
“If that is the case, I can’t understand how this is conducted in such a way that has led in Gaza to reportedly around 28,000 people killed, to 75% of the population displaced, and to a level of destruction of entire neighborhoods at the level that it has happened,” he said.
“I think that there is something wrong in the way the military operations have been conducted.”
Israel launched its air, ground and sea invasion of Gaza after Hamas fighters infiltrated the country on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking another 240 hostage. In late November, about 100 hostages were released during a brief humanitarian pause.
Netanyahu said on Wednesday that his military is “on our way to an absolute victory” and needs only months to finish the job of eliminating Hamas.
No replacement for UNRWA
The U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has come under intense scrutiny and criticism in recent weeks, since Israel accused a dozen staffers of participating in the October 7 terror attacks. At least 16 countries, including top donor the United States, have suspended their funding to the agency.
Guterres and UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini acted immediately upon receiving information from Israel and fired nine of the accused. Another staffer was confirmed dead, and officials are clarifying the identity of two others. An internal U.N. investigation has begun, as well as an independent review of the agency’s operations.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Netanyahu called for UNRWA to be dismantled.
Guterres said UNRWA is critical and irreplaceable.
“There is no other organization that has a presence in Gaza that is capable of being able to respond to the needs,” he said.
There have been several media reports of a “dossier” containing evidence about the 12 UNRWA staff implicated in the October 7 attacks, but the U.N. says it has not seen it, nor has it received anything in writing from the Israeli government about the allegations, which it said, nonetheless, are credible.
Guterres said he terminated the contracts of the individuals before an internal investigation, in the “best interests” of the United Nations.
“We couldn’t run the risk not to act immediately as the accusations were related to criminal activities that are really dangerous,” he told reporters.
The secretary-general said he was surprised to read press reports that Israel’s military and Foreign Ministry were not willing to share the dossier with the United Nations.
“And even worse, I read in the press that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t expect me to act,” Guterres said. “I can’t imagine that this was a trap.”
He said if Israel presents him with any further credible allegations about Hamas infiltration at any level of the United Nations, he will act on it immediately.
Israeli officials have been unrelenting in their criticism of the United Nations and Guterres since the war began. Israel’s U.N. ambassador has repeatedly called for his resignation.
But Guterres, a longtime politician and a former prime minister of Portugal, has appeared unmoved by the barrage of criticism. He has repeatedly called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, the release of all hostages and for both sides to abide by international law.