By Matthew Mpoke Bigg
Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip has led to destruction and killing on a scale that is “utterly unacceptable,” the United Nations’ secretary-general, António Guterres, said Sunday as Palestinian authorities said the death toll in the territory since the start of the campaign had surpassed 25,000.
Guterres called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza that would allow aid to reach all those in need, and to facilitate the release of hostages taken during an attack on Israel led by Hamas on Oct. 7, during which Israeli authorities say about 1,200 people were killed. More than 100 hostages remain in captivity.
In response to the Oct. 7 attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a campaign of airstrikes in Gaza and a ground invasion in a bid to eradicate Hamas. The government also declared a siege of Gaza, which has a population of about 2.2 million people.
Israel’s government says that civilian casualties are a tragedy, but it argues that it bombards residential areas because Hamas hides its forces among the civilian population and has built an extensive network of tunnels, some of them beneath hospitals. It also says that it warns civilians to move to areas away from the fighting.
Almost all of Gaza’s population has been displaced because of Israel’s military campaign, and international groups say the aid that is making it into Gaza is a small fraction of what is necessary to stem the humanitarian crisis that has played out over the past three months.
“This is heartbreaking,” Guterres said about the loss of life. He was speaking in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, during a summit that aims to increase trade and investment between nations in parts of the world that are less economically developed.
“The Middle East is a tinderbox,” he said. “We must do all we can to prevent conflict igniting across the region.”
Guterres said the destruction and civilian death toll in Gaza — which includes more than 150 U.N. staff members killed — were more severe than any that had occurred since he assumed his current post in 2017. In comparison, the U.N. says the fighting in Ukraine, which has also caused immense military losses, has killed at least 10,000 civilians since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.
In a further indication of the casualty toll, the British charity Save the Children said this month that Israel’s military operation had killed 10,000 children, and that thousands more were missing and presumed buried under the rubble.
The U.N. and aid groups cite the Palestinian health ministry’s casualty toll in their reports, however, those numbers have at times been the subject of debate. That is in part because officials in Gaza do not distinguish between civilians and fighters, and because the level of destruction has made it difficult for them to provide an accurate accounting. U.S. and Israeli government officials have sometimes cast doubt on the casualty numbers, however, they have not in recent weeks systematically challenged the ministry’s figures.
Palestinian authorities also say that more than 62,000 people have been injured in the war. The head of the United Nations World Health Organization’s operation in Gaza and the West Bank said that many of them are children who have had limbs amputated and will need continued care.