At Arab summit, UN chief reaffirms call to Israel to halt Rafah assault as aid stocks dwindle


UNITED NATIONS, May 17 (APP):UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated his warning Thursday against Israel’s planned full-scale assault on Rafah, just as aid teams issued increasingly urgent appeals for a safe passage throughout Gaza, to replenish dangerously low stocks of lifesaving supplies.

In a related development, the UN’s top court opened its hearing on a new request from South Africa to issue more constraints on Israeli military action in the besieged enclave.

In a call for the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages” still held in Gaza, the Secretary-General told Arab League leaders at a Summit in Manama, Bahrain, that nothing justified the “collective punishment” of Palestinians.

“Any assault on Rafah is unacceptable; it would inflict another surge of pain and misery when we need a surge in life-saving aid,” he added.

Flanked by Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, the UN chief also renewed his strong backing for the UN agency.

It “remains the backbone of our operations in Gaza and a lifeline for Palestine refugees across the region. It needs full support and funding,” he stressed, as the UN World Food Programme (WFP) issued a new warning about looming famine in Gaza.

“Food and fuel stocks will run out in a matter of days,” WFP warned in a social media post on X. “Since 6 May, we have not been able to access and receive aid from the Kerem Shalom crossing. The situation is becoming unsustainable.”

The UN agency highlighted the very real threat that any further escalation of hostilities in Gaza could bring aid operations “to a complete standstill” and lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

Although WFP has provided special nutritional foods to pregnant and breastfeeding women along with children under five across Gaza, the UN agency said that as of May 11 distributions were suspended in Rafah “and are only ongoing in Khan Younis and Deir El Balah in a limited capacity”.

In northern Gaza, WFP also warned that rates of acute malnutrition among under two-year-olds “doubled from 15 per cent in January to 30 per cent in March”.

Humanitarians warn that acute malnutrition is the most deadly form of malnutrition, leaving affected children between three to 12 times more likely to die than a well-nourished child.

The dire assessment comes as the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) reported late Wednesday that 600,000 people – one quarter of Gaza’s population – have now been forcibly displaced from Rafah in the last week, amid ongoing Israeli military activity and evacuation orders.

Another 100,000 people have been uprooted from the north to comply with evacuation orders by the Israeli military, while heavy gun battles have reportedly raged.

According to the UN aid coordination office, OCHA, “285 square kilometres, or approximately 78 per cent of the Gaza Strip” are now subject to evacuation orders by the Israeli military.

In its latest update, OCHA reported continuing bombardment “from the air, land and sea…across much of the Gaza Strip, resulting in further civilian casualties, displacement, and destruction of houses and other civilian infrastructure”, according to information received at the UN Headquarters in New York.

The UN office also confirmed reports of ground incursions and heavy fighting in Jabalia in northern Gaza, as well as in Deir al Balah in central Gaza and eastern Rafah in the south.

“As of 15 May, Rafah crossing remains closed. Kerem Shalom crossing is operational, but the prevailing security and logistical conditions are hampering humanitarian aid deliveries at scale,” OCHA noted.

Echoing those concerns, the WFP insisted that “multiple entry points” for aid were required “to reverse six months of near starvation conditions and avert a famine, steady flows of food supplies, every day and every week…The threat of famine in Gaza never loomed larger.”

In an effort to halt the military operation in and around the enclave’s southern-most city, South Africa filed a new request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which it was hearing on Thursday.

“Urgent provisional measures are required to ensure the survival of Palestinians in Gaza,” the South Africa application said, in its latest claim filed on May 10.

“The situation brought about by the Israeli assault on Rafah, and the extreme risk it poses to humanitarian supplies and basic services into Gaza, to the survival of the Palestinian medical system, and to the very survival of Palestinians in Gaza as a group, is not only an escalation of the prevailing situation, but gives rise to new facts that are causing irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

Rafah is “the last refuge” for Gazans, the South Africa petition continued, adding that the city is also the “last viable centre” for shelter and basic services including medical care. The Israeli military’s seizure of Rafah crossing and the brief closure and ongoing access problems to nearby Kerem Shalom crossing have blocked the main entry points for lifesaving humanitarian aid to Gaza, South Africa also insisted.

“The remaining population and medical facilities are at extreme risk, given the recent evidence of evacuation zones being treated as extermination zones, the mass destruction and mass graves at Gaza’s other hospitals and the use by Israel of Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) to identify ‘kill lists’,” ICJ court documents show.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) previously issued special orders to Israel in late January – known as “provisional measures” – to prevent harm to Gazans, following South Africa’s stand that Israel was in violation of its obligations as a signatory of the Genocide Convention. There was no explicit call for an immediate halt to Israel’s full-scale military operation in the Strip.

In his address to the summit, the UN chief repeated his longstanding call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, the release of all hostages held in the enclave, and unimpeded access for aid delivery.

“The war in Gaza is an open wound that threatens to infect the entire region,” he said.

“In its speed and scale, it is the deadliest conflict in my time as Secretary-General – for civilians, aid workers, journalists, and our own UN colleagues.”

He stressed that nothing could justify the October 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel, or the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.

He also voiced concern over the tensions in the occupied West Bank, highlighting the spike in illegal Israeli settlements, settler violence and excessive use of force by the Israeli Defence Forces, as well as demolitions and evictions.

“The only permanent way to end the cycle of violence and instability is through a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states,” he said.

“The demographic and historical character of Jerusalem must be preserved, and the status quo at the Holy Sites must be upheld, in line with the special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” Guterres added.

Turning to Sudan, the UN chief urged the international community to intensify efforts towards peace and called for the warring parties to agree on a lasting ceasefire.

More than a year of fighting between the Sudanese army and rival paramilitary known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has generated a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of civilians have been killed and 18 million face looming famine.

He also called for protecting “the fragile political processes in Libya and Yemen”, and encouraged the Syrian people to come together in a spirit of reconciliation, honouring their diversity and respecting human rights for all.

Guterres also focused on other serious global crises, including the climate emergency; rising inequality, poverty and hunger; crushing debt; and the potential and perils of new technology such as artificial intelligence (AI).

“We need deep reforms to the global multilateral system – from the Security Council to the international financial architecture – so they are truly universal and representative of today’s realities,” he added.

He pointed to the Summit of the Future at UN Headquarters this September as “a pivotal opportunity to create momentum for a more networked and inclusive multilateralism.” 

The Secretary-General pointed to the enormous potential in the Arab region.

Emphasizing that unity is the one condition for success in the world today, he said divisions allowed outsiders to intervene – promoting conflicts, stoking sectarian tensions and inadvertently fueling terrorism.

“These are obstacles to peaceful development and the well-being of your peoples,” he told leaders.

“Overcoming those obstacles requires breaking the vicious circle of division and foreign manipulation – and moving forward together to build a more peaceful and prosperous future for the people of the Arab world and beyond.”