Humanitarian Coordinator Lynn Hastings briefs the press in Geneva

Virtual press briefing to Geneva-based UN correspondents 

by the Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, UN Resident Coordinator and Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Ms. Lynn Hastings 

Opening remarks

Humanitarian Coordinator Lynn Hastings: Thanks a lot. And thanks to everybody who's online. I just want to start off with a couple of broader remarks. The first, of course, is, we absolutely need a ceasefire. This is the only way forward. Right now, what is happening on the ground is not going to bring peace and security to either the Palestinians or Israelis for many, many years, if not generations to come. So, a cease fire is in the interest of everybody, at the moment. 

I also want to highlight the fact that Israel, as the occupying power, is responsible to protect the Palestinian civilian population. This means they have to provide for basic needs. They have to ensure that there is unimpeded humanitarian access to those in need. It's not just for the United Nations to do. Allowing trucks to get to the border between Egypt and Gaza is insufficient. They need to ensure that the conditions inside of Gaza are also such that we will be able to provide assistance to everybody who is in need.

We are now seeing some Palestinians being arrested and detained. As far as we know, that's without any sort of trial. This is of obvious concern to the United Nations. And then, of course, we're also continuing to be very concerned about the release of hostages, which would be able to happen if there were a ceasefire.

In the meantime, everybody who is in some sort of detention or a hostage [situation] etc., they need to be given access to, to make sure that their conditions are appropriate. With respect to the situation on the ground, we're over two months into the crisis, and of course, it doesn't seem like there is going to be a let up. 

Just over the past couple of days, between the 9th and 10th [of December], 297 Palestinians were killed; the 10th and the 11th [of December], 208 Palestinians killed; and between 11th and 12th [of December], yesterday, 217 Palestinians killed. So obviously, the number of those Palestinians who are being killed and injured is going up significantly every day. 

We all know that the health care system is or has collapsed. We've got a textbook formula for epidemics and a public health disaster. This is in part, of course, because these shelters have long ago exceeded their full capacity with people lining up for hours just to get to a toilet. One toilet available for hundreds of people. You can imagine what the sanitation conditions are like as a result. 

Almost half of Gaza's population is now in Rafah, which is the small part of Gaza, in the southeast corner. Again, this is leading to nothing but a health crisis. And only one third of the hospitals are working. And even those that are working, of course, are only partially functioning.

We're seeing infectious diseases breaking out. And I think WHO [World Health Organization] is estimating about 360,000 [cases of infectious diseases] - let me just double check on exactly what those are - meningitis, jaundice, chickenpox, upper respiratory tract infections. They've all been recorded. And, of course, we have already referred to the outbreak of diarrhea, in particular amongst children, which globally is the number one causes of death amongst children under the age of five in situations like this.

Now we're seeing the winter - it's raining actually in East Jerusalem, so likely in Gaza as well - without appropriate shelter available for people. 

Just specifically on food insecurity, WFP [World Food Programme] took the pause as an opportunity to do a survey for people in terms of food insecurity. They've recorded that 97% of households in the north and 83% of households in the south have inadequate food consumption. So that means maybe one meal a day, maybe one meal every a couple of days. In the north, it's almost 50% of the households that have experienced severe levels of hunger. And in the south, I think it's one third. 

In the north, people have access to about 1.8 liters of clean water per day. The global standards are 15 liters per day. Now, that includes to be able to wash. So that's for sanitation, hygiene, but also to be able to cook and then, of course, clean drinking water. So in the north, it's 1.8 liters of clean water per person per day versus the global standard of 15. And in the south, it's about 1.5 liters of water per person per day. And also in the south, one third of the households have reported severe levels of hunger. 

I think we all saw the bombing of the UNWRA school in Beit Hanoun. Or maybe it shouldn't actually be bombing. I shouldn't use that word because these were not airstrikes. This was actual just destruction, using explosives on the ground specifically to destroy an UNWRA school, civilian infrastructure without any justification for doing that, or at least none that we have seen.

We're now up to 1,9 million Palestinians internally displaced. As I say, most from the north initially, then to Khan Yunis and now to Rafah. This is obviously concerning all of us in terms of providing assistance and not just because of the health outbreak that this is causing, but also because the streets are full of people either who have set up temporary shelters on the streets or simply just because people are milling around on the streets, making it very, very difficult for our trucks to be able to get through.

Additional specific challenges, of course, the ongoing fighting in Khan Yunis has been very intense. I've cited the numbers of Palestinians that have been killed in the recent couple of days, and fighting is continuing on in the north as the Israelis circled Gaza City and Jabalya more and more. 

One issue that I do need to highlight and again, this is in keeping with the government of Israel's obligations as an occupying power, but also as a warring party to this war, it's about deconfliction, notification. I'm not sure how many of you are aware of this, but warring parties to any type of a conflict are obliged to adhere to what we call deconfliction and notification. So, number one, we tell the warring parties where civilian infrastructure is and in particular where facilities of the United Nations is. And we do that repeatedly to the government of Israel.

Even if things haven't changed, we remind them where our premises are. Despite that, we have recorded 130 incidents that have impacted U.N. deconflicted installations since the 7th of October, and 62 of those incidents have resulted in casualties. 92 of those have resulted in physical damage to the facilities. And even more important, UNWRA is estimating that at least 283 internally displaced persons seeking refuge in their shelters have been killed.

Again, I just remind you, these are in deconflicted U.N. premises, which should not be hit or subject to any type of damage during a conflict. And then another 974 people injured [who were seeking shelter in UNRWA premises]. This is not a final number. We expect it to rise. But that is the number that we have currently. 

And then, of course, there is the issue of notification where we want to be able to move to a certain area and we notify to the government of Israel that we are planning on delivering assistance in a certain area. Let's just say tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and again, it's an obligation for the warring parties to ensure that we're able to provide assistance to where we have identified there is a need.

So, we have asked the Government of Israel to work more closely with us on that so we are able to reach all of the populations who are in need throughout Gaza. 

I've also repeated a number of times over the past couple of weeks that we need to see the commercial sectors having access to bring things into Gaza. Yes, the United Nations is bringing in the bare minimum. High energy biscuits. Flour is the number one need on the ground at the moment, canned tuna, those sorts of things. But we need the markets to be open for fresh vegetables, so we can avoid a malnutrition crisis. We do welcome the fact that now Kerem Shalom has been identified and operated yesterday to verify United Nations trucks at Karem Shalom so they can reach Rafah crossing more quickly.

But again, we need Kerem Shalom to be open so that goods can be offloaded at Kerem Shalom and brought into Gaza so they can be distributed. And as I say, that we can work side by side with the commercial sector, with the public sectors, which we do everywhere in the world. The United Nations cannot support a population of 2.2 million people with humanitarian assistance, it's a band-aid. We don't operate anywhere else in the world without going side by side with other sectors, in particular the commercial sector and the public sectors. 

Fuel: It is inching up. I understand that we may start seeing about 180,000 liters coming in. This will enable us to use fuel not just for our own operations, but also some of the NGO community, some of the hospitals, desalination plants. But of course, it's nowhere near what will be needed for any type of a resumption of a normal life, and in particular the operation of basic services at hospitals, wastewater treatment plants, desalination plants, etc. 

I just want to comment also briefly on the issue of - we are seeing lots of reports on the potential of flooding of tunnels. We don't know if this is confirmed or if in fact it's happening yet, but we want to flag that if this is to take place, it's anticipated that it will cause severe damage to the already fragile water and sewage infrastructure that's in Gaza, and it could impact generations to come, rendering the aquifer, which is a crucial source of drinking water - once it's been desalinated for people in Gaza, it could jeopardize Gaza's already very fragile ecosystem, and then there's even a risk to buildings and roads collapsing because of the increased pressure and infiltration of sea water into Gaza. So, again, we don't have confirmation that this is going to happen, but if it is, it would be considered to be a yet another issue with respect to people in Gaza having access to clean water.

And of course, we can't forget the West Bank. Just a few numbers there. 464 Palestinians have been killed. We all know that's a record high since 2005. So that's 464 Palestinians killed, including 109 children. And then since the 7th of October, it's 271 killed with 69 children. So more than half of the Palestinians killed since October 7th, sorry, have been killed since October 7th for the entire year 2023.

We are estimating that about 3,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have been detained and we do not have sight on where those Palestinians are and whether or not they will be given a trial or if they will be held administratively. With respect to settler incidences, we've recorded 336 since the 7th of October. That's an average of five per day, whereas last year it was two per day.

And lastly, the economic situation, I think most of us on this call have seen that the permits for West Bank workers inside of Israel and in settlements, their permits have been suspended. There is, of course, no trade with Israel and no trade within the West Bank, amongst governance inside of the West Bank due to the many closures that have been implemented since the 7th of October.

And the lack of revenue transfers is of grave concern. Palestinians working for the public sector have not received 100% of their salaries for well over a year now. So, I'm sure you understand the precariousness that that presents for people in the West Bank, but also for the Palestinian Authority itself. I will leave it there.

OCHA Deputy Spokesperson Jens Laerke: Thank you. Thank you very much, Lynn, for these sobering remarks, I might add. We'll go to questions. The first stop is Youri from RIA Novosti. And after that, everyone from Reuters. Over to you. 

RIA NOVOSTI: Yes. Thank you, Ms. Hastings, for this briefing. I have two questions, but they're short. The first one is that Thomas White, from UNRWA, spoke about the looting of humanitarian convoys a few days ago. Is this trend continuing? Did you see any evidence of that? And my second questions is that you have also spoken about the Palestinians arrested without any trials in recent days. This is also the case of the director of the Al-Shifa hospital? Nobody knows where he is. What is the status of these people? What is the difference in status with the hostages according to the international law? Thank you. 

Lynn Hastings: Jens, do you want me to go one by one? 

Jens Laerke: One by one, please. Yeah. 

Lynn Hastings: Okay. Thanks. So given the fact that we're seeing people taking supplies, that is continuing. We prefer not to reference it as looting, because most of these people are very, very hungry, as I have already described. But that does continue. Now, we are trying to work with communities to explain how we're distributing and what the expectations of people should be in the hopes that we will be able to have a more systematic distribution of goods by ourselves and by the partners.

With respect to the detention, we don't know where the director of al-Shifa hospital is either, but on this I would also encourage that access by the ICRC is given to him to determine his conditions, but also to everybody, and that includes the hostages and anybody who has been detained. Thank you.

Jens Laerke: Thank you very much. Now we'll go to Gabriel from Reuters. And after that, Chloe from AFP. 

Reuters: Ms. Hastings, just a question about your own personal situation, if I can. Given that your visa is not being renewed, are there any talks with the Israeli authorities about this in particular, the situation? And will you continue working in the area maybe from another country? Just wondering where the things stand there. Thank you so much. 

Lynn Hastings: Thanks. Any of those discussions would be referred to [United Nations] Headquarters, so I'll let you do that. And I think Stéphane Dujarric has been very clear on my status. So I'll just refer you to his remarks. 

Jens Laerke: Thank you very much. And Chloe from AFP.

AFP: Thank you for the brief. I would like to ask you a question about the vaccines in the Gaza Strip. We have a report from this morning from the Ministry of Health announcing that children's vaccinations have been completely sold out. I don't know if you've heard about it, and if you could help us to confirm this. Thank you very much.

Lynn Hastings: Thanks. So, yes, in fact, this is something UNICEF is looking at, in particular. And we were able to get some vaccines distributed, but it's not nearly enough. So, vaccinations are one of the priority items that we're trying to bring in to ensure that we're able to continue with the vaccine campaign. 

Jens Laerke: Thank you, Lynn. Next up is Nick Cumming-Bruce from The New York Times in Geneva.

NYT: Yeah, thank you for this. A couple of questions, please. In relation to the school that was blown up, I wonder if you could just shed a little bit more light on whether any particular circumstances around that school that you're aware of, were you give an advance notice of the plans, can you shed any light on the motivation for doing that?

The second question is there have been repeated allegations about the diversion of aid by Hamas to its own kind of military wing. Could you address that and can you say that there has been a significant diversion of assistance going in or not? And thirdly, if I may, I have one last question. Karem Shalom is supposed to be open. I'm not quite clear whether trucks are actually coming through that. I don't see that in the OCHA reporting for yesterday. Thank you. Thanks, Nick. 

Lynn Hastings: So, yeah, I guess you'd have to ask the Israelis what their motivation is for blowing up a school. And so I'll leave it at that. 

Diversion of aid. There will always be those sorts of allegations. We haven't had any concerns expressed to us by the Israelis about any diversion of aid from trucks. There are other trucks that are coming in. And so, whether or not there's been any diversion of aid from those trucks or not, I don't really know. I wouldn't be able to answer that specifically. 

Kerem Shalom is only being used for verification. It's not being used as a drop off or an unloading for the U.N. or anyone else to go and pick up goods to distribute. So right now, what's happening and I think yesterday was the first day where somewhere about 100, I think 80 trucks were cleared at Kerem Shalom. And then they still have to go around to Rafah to actually enter into Gaza. So, again, Kerem Shalom is open only for verification, not for entry.

Jens Laerke: Thank you very much. I got a question whether the recording will be available after this or the answer is yes. UNTV will be able to give you the recording, if your connectivity is not the best. Let me look at the screen here. I don't see any other hands going up. So if that's not the case…New York Times Do you have a follow up? 

NYT: As regards Kerem Shalom, I mean, are you expecting to see that open to traffic? The understanding from the kind of talk that we've had was that this was going to be a new route for the delivery of trucks and aid. But do you have a date for that to happen or is it really only going to be a place for verification for the foreseeable future? Thank you. 

Lynn Hastings: So this is something that we've been pushing for ever since really the beginning of the war. We need Kerem Shalom open. I certainly cannot give you a date because that's up to the Israelis. But it is absolutely critical if we are going to be able to provide proper assistance throughout Gaza - and as I said, we can't do it alone - it has to be with partners, including the commercial sector and the public sector. It just needs to be open. I've said it before, Rafah is a pedestrian crossing. It's not a crossing intended for hundreds of trucks. So, without Kerem Shalom, we will never be able to properly deliver humanitarian assistance in Gaza. 

Jens Laerke: Thank you again. Next, Isabella Sacco from Spanish EFE. over to you. 

EFE: Yes, good morning. Thank you very much for this briefing. I would like to ask on the extent of the hunger in Gaza. You mentioned that you observed already a level of hunger. And I saw in the report by OCHA this morning that there are hundreds of cases of intestinal diseases reported every day due to food shortages. So, if you can elaborate on this, I put that in relation with the limited access of humanitarian aid.

Lynn Hastings: Thank you. Thanks, Isabelle. We will send you the link to the WFP survey and I think the survey itself will be able to answer your questions more clearly. So we'll put that in the link or Jens will send it out. You can probably Google WFP, survey Gaza and it'll probably pop up, but we'll send you the link in any event. 

Jens Laerke: Indeed, we will. 

[The link to the WFP survey was later shared:

Thank you. John Zarocostas who files for The Lancet and France24. 

The Lancet: Yes. Good morning. I was wondering if you have any provisional estimates on the damage to infrastructure, especially public infrastructure, schools, hospitals, roads, water treatment works and what it will cost to rehabilitate all these facilities. I gather from your appeal was the flash appeal was for 1,2 billion. If I'm not mistaken, how much of that has been met today? And are you looking for extra funds? Thank you. 

Lynn Hastings: Thanks, John. So, we're in the middle of trying to do all of this, obviously.

We've got an estimate largely from satellites that about 60% of homes have been damaged or absolutely destroyed. But I'm not going to be able to give you any numbers that we could cite with any credibility for the moment. So, you know, during the pause, we did try and get out and take a look, especially at the water connections and do basically some patchwork of repairs.

But I'd rather wait until we have something a little bit more reliable. I have no idea how much this is going to cost to reconstruct. I’ll direct you to the conference from 2014 where which was held in Cairo, where I think they estimated $5 billion was going to be needed to reconstruct Gaza. I can't even imagine what that number looks like now.

The flash appeal is only for humanitarian assistance. And that does include some, as I say, patchwork repairs of things like water connections so that pipes start flowing, etc., as soon as possible. But again, I really hesitate to give you a ballpark figure even for the reconstruction of Gaza. We haven't even seen the final extent of what the damage is going to be.

So, we really unfortunately need to hold off on that. The flash appeal itself or just the humanitarian assistance is now funded at about 39%. So, we do look forward, obviously, to more funding coming in. When I say it's funded at 39%, that includes commitments. Doesn't mean that the 39% is actually in the accounts and being used, but it is representative of what we would expect to be coming in over the next several weeks.

Jens Laerke: Thank you very much, Lynn. Next up, is Satoko attaching from Japanese press. 

Japanese press: I just want to follow up the next question on blowing up the school. I didn't catch up your answer clearly. So, did you receive any warning beforehand and was there any people inside? Or if people had evacuated, evacuated beforehand?

Lynn Hastings: So, we were told that they were going to be, well, I think we were told that people should leave. So, we didn't appreciate what the extent of the damage was going to be. I have not received any reports of any casualties. So, my understanding is people did leave. So, yes, we did receive advance notice and but again, in terms of the reasons why I would refer you to the Israelis.

Jens Laerke: Thank you very much. Chloe, AFP.

AFP: Sorry, one just one last question. And I don't know if you have any reports of the 120 children who are in Al-Shifa hospital and who had no surviving member of their family, they were with medical staff. You know where they are now?  

Lynn Hastings: Yeah. So, UNICEF has what we call it tracing or tracking mechanism in place. I don't have the actual details on that. We can ask UNICEF how much they've been able to confirm on that. And if we have that information, we can again, send it back through Jens. 

Jens Laerke:  Isabelle, EFE, again. 

EFE: Yes, a thank you very much. And I would like to ask about. How are you trying to deal or U.N. or Palestinians themselves with the number of people that you mentioned that is now sheltering in Rafah? You mentioned that most of the Palestinian population now is in Rafah in this small area of Rafah. Could you please update the situation there? How many people are in the streets, sleeping in the streets? But beyond that, what is the, for example, the situation? And if you have any update of the Nasser Hospital where apparently destruction has been very serious in the last days. Thank you. 

Lynn Hastings: Yeah. So, we estimate that there's about a million people in Rafah. So, I think, again, you can visualize what that means. It impacts our own ability to move. It increases a public health crisis. And just trying to get food to people who are in Rafah is extremely difficult. We have said, I think, a number of times, both publicly but also with the Israelis, that moving people into these very small places it will jeopardize the humanitarian operations in Gaza. And it may come to a point where we're simply not able to provide the assistance, even if it does get in because of the situation, people need to be able to move.

We cannot have people into these small areas and expect that there won't be a public health crisis or that we will be able to distribute. I've said it before, but I'll say it again. The reason why Gaza is not safe is not just because of the airstrikes, but it's also because these conditions that are being created by the massive displacement of the population into smaller and smaller areas of Gaza. 

Back to Nasser Hospital, yes, this is all part of the fact that now there's only one third of the hospitals inside of Gaza, 36 hospitals. Now there's less than a third that are functioning. And when I say functioning, I use that word very, very loosely, because most of the hospitals that are functioning also…most of the hospitals are not functioning to capacity, so it just means people are not being treated for all the various diseases and injuries that they're suffering from. 

Jens Laerke: Thank you very much, Lynn. I think we will take a couple of more questions and then wrap it up. First, back to John Zarocostas and then Nick from The New York Times.

The Lancet:  Yes, thank you. Coming back to what you were saying about the second crossing that is currently being used just for verification. If I'm not mistaken, and please correct me. That crossing before the October 7 crisis had a capacity to deal with about 500 trucks per day, of which the majority were commercial. Is there any indication from the Israeli authorities that they will give the green light for commercial traffic, or is that being restricted because of the limitations of getting into Gaza, because of the ongoing conflict?

Lynn Hastings: Okay. So about 500 trucks were going into Gaza before October 7th, but not all of them were coming through Kerem Shalom. Some of them were coming through an informal crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which is called Salah al-Din. About 30% of goods going into Gaza were going in from this other crossing. So Kerem Shalom is total capacity, I don't know exactly what it is, but it certainly in the hundreds, the high hundreds. So even though it wouldn't have been 500 a day that were going in, we could probably estimate that it could be as many as 500 or even more that could go through Kerem Shalom. Now, the reason why goods are not going through Kerem Shalom is not because of any type of logistical reason. It's because the Government of Israel announced that no humanitarian assistance would go from Israel into Gaza after October 7th. So that's the reason why. It's not because there is some sort of technical restrictions. 

Jens Laerke: Thank you very much, Lynn. And we'll wrap it up with a last question from Nick from The New York Times. 

NYT: Yeah, thank you. I just wanted to ask, what is the status of Kamal Adwan hospital as of now and whether you have an update on the people who were detained from there.

Lynn Hastings: So, we don't actually have the information on people who are being detained, neither from any hospitals nor from any of the UNWRA shelters. We've all seen the pictures. I have asked that ICRC or any appropriate body have access to people who are detained to determine what their conditions are.

Unfortunately, I think this is going to be a long-term issue where we're not going to have a lot of the details. So, yeah, so unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to provide you with those details. And that is one of the reasons why this is very, very concerning, because we don't have the information on people who are being detained.

Jens Laerke: Thank you very much, Lynn. I don't see any more questions, so we will wrap it up with that. Thank you very much. To all of you journalists who joined us online and those who may have been following us on UN Web TV. And first and foremost, thank you very, very much to you and for taking time this morning to brief us.

Lynn Hastings: Thanks everybody.