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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 25 MARCH 2024

UN’s Guterres repeats call for immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza; Blinken ends eight-day tour

UN’s Guterres repeats call for immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza; Blinken ends eight-day tour
Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres (right) inspects items at El Arish International Airport, Egypt, 23 March 2024, meant for aid in Gaza. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Khaled Elfiqi)

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and an ‘ironclad commitment’ by Israel for access to humanitarian aid.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a last-minute decision on Friday to meet in Tel Aviv protesters pushing Israel to strike a deal that would bring home the hostages still being held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. It came at the end of his sixth visit to the Middle East since the war between Israel and Hamas began on 7 October.

Russia and China vetoed the strongest move yet by the US to pressure Israel at the United Nations Security Council, saying that a resolution endorsing a ceasefire in Gaza was still too weak. 

UN’s Guterres urges immediate Gaza ceasefire amid famine risk

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and an “ironclad commitment” by Israel for access to humanitarian aid. 

Guterres spoke during a visit to the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza on Saturday. 

“A long line of blocked relief trucks on one side of the gates. The long shadow of starvation on the other,” Guterres said in prepared remarks. 

“It’s time to truly flood Gaza with life-saving aid,” Guterres said. “The choice is clear: either surge or starvation.” 

Sitting inside a truck filled with food aid and waiting at the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, Magdy, a driver, described the “very difficult” sounds of missiles and planes he hears that keep him awake at night.

“I can’t sleep because of what I hear,” said Magdy, who lives in his truck for three months at a time. Drivers often park at the border for weeks or months with trucks filled with supplies, which sometimes expire as they await permission to cross.   

In Rafah, Guterres said that “nothing justifies the horrific attacks by Hamas on 7 October. And nothing justifies the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

The death toll in Gaza had climbed above 30,000, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, while the United Nations has warned of a looming “man-made” famine.

“It’s time for an ironclad commitment by Israel for total, unfettered access for humanitarian goods throughout Gaza,” Guterres said.

Blinken persists in ‘Groundhog Day’ travels seeking Gaza results

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a last-minute decision on Friday to meet protesters in Tel Aviv who are pushing Israel to strike a deal that would bring home the hostages still being held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

“We trust you Blinken — close a deal!” they chanted.

“We’re working to bring them home,” Blinken replied, shaking hands before boarding a black sport utility vehicle and speeding off in his motorcade to the airport at the end of his sixth Middle East tour since the war between Israel and Hamas began on 7 October.

These trips were starting to take on a Groundhog Day quality, said Brian Katulis, a former White House and State Department official who is now at the Middle East Institute in Washington, referring to the 1993 movie with Bill Murray caught in a time loop.

Despite Blinken’s frequent travel through the region, there’s little evidence the persistent US diplomat has made much headway.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is openly spurning US warnings against an invasion of Rafah, the Gaza city where more than one million people have sought shelter from the fighting. At the same time, Blinken’s public travels risk being overshadowed by private ceasefire negotiations with Israel, Hamas and Arab nations led by CIA Director William Burns, though both are clearly part of the Biden team’s broader efforts.

On Friday, the final day of a typically gruelling eight-day tour that stretched from Europe to Asia and then to the Middle East, Blinken met Netanyahu to discuss a hostage deal, getting more aid into Gaza and the Rafah campaign. He said the US would spell out alternatives to an invasion when a delegation of Israelis visited Washington next week.

“I came back to Israel as a friend and to have candid conversations, as friends do,” Blinken told reporters on the tarmac before departing Tel Aviv for Washington.

“We share Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas,” he said. “A major military ground operation in Rafah is not the way to do it. It risks killing more civilians. It risks wreaking greater havoc with the provision of humanitarian assistance. It risks further isolating Israel around the world and jeopardising its long-term security.”

That warning was met by an equally stern rejoinder from Netanyahu, who said Israel hoped for US support, but would press forward in Rafah without it, if necessary.

Russia, China veto US resolution at UN for a Gaza ceasefire

Russia and China vetoed the strongest move yet by the US to pressure Israel at the United Nations Security Council, saying that a resolution endorsing a ceasefire in Gaza was still too weak.

The proposal, which cited “the imperative of an immediate and sustained ceasefire” in Gaza — but didn’t demand one — was the closest the US had come to pressing its ally Israel, which has endorsed only a limited halt in fighting to free hostages held by Hamas.

But the US resolution also included a condemnation of the 7 October attack on Israel by Hamas. Most UN proposals by other nations have left out criticism of Hamas.

“Gaza has virtually been wiped from the Earth and now the US representative without blinking has been asserting that Washington has finally begun to recognise the need for a ceasefire,” Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzya told the council before voting against the resolution. “This sluggish thought process in Washington has cost the lives of 32,000 Palestinians.”

Although 11 out of 15 Security Council members voted in favour of the resolution, Russia and China, which wield veto power, blocked its adoption. Algeria also voted against the proposal, and Guyana abstained.

The US has long been steadfast in championing Israel at the UN, where other nations have been more focused on demanding Palestinian rights. But the US resolution was significant in open criticism of the civilian toll of Israel’s drive to eliminate Hamas in Gaza and in warning of the risks ahead.

The US resolution emphasised concern that “a ground offensive into Rafah would result in further harm to civilians and their further displacement”. 

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun criticised the proposal’s failure to flatly oppose an invasion of Rafah. “The draft does not clearly and equivocally state its opposition, which would send a totally wrong signal and lead to severe consequences,” he said after the vote.

The US-crafted text also condemned calls by some Israeli government ministers for the resettlement of Palestinians, rejecting “any attempt at demographic or territorial change in Gaza,” and endorsed a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. DM

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