Thank you, Mr. President. I would like to thank Secretary-General Ban for his briefing and for his efforts to secure peace and protect civilians in the Middle East. My remarks today will address two areas: Israel and Gaza, and Syria.
First, in Gaza, the United States is working intensively to secure an immediate cessation of hostilities based on a return to the November 2012 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas. This is the message President Obama gave in his public remarks yesterday. It is the purpose of Secretary of State Kerry’s trip to Cairo, where he met with Egyptian leaders and the Secretary-General, and is conferring regularly with other allies and partners. And it is a goal that the President of the Security Council embraced on behalf all of the Council’s members when we met this past Sunday. We also recognize that as we work toward the short-term goal of a ceasefire, we also have to solve the underlying issues that led to this conflict, and ultimately build a long-term peace through a two-state solution.
Throughout the hostilities, we have consistently recognized Israel’s right to defend itself, whether through attacks by rockets overhead or tunnels below. No country in the world would tolerate a relentless barrage of attacks on its citizens. Yesterday, in a single day, militants fired 155 rockets into Israel. In the two weeks of fighting, more than 2,000 rockets have been launched on Israel. On Sunday, Israel foiled another attempt by armed militants to use tunnels to sneak into the country and launch an attack. And then again, yesterday militants from Gaza entered Israel and killed four Israeli soldiers.
In Gaza, the toll of the violence has been devastating. More than 600 Palestinians have been killed, the large majority civilians, including at least 59 women and more than 121 children. More than 3,700 more have been injured. Thousands of homes have been damaged, many totally destroyed. And more than 100,000 people have been displaced. As the destruction mounts, some 35,000 Palestinians who need food have not yet been reached. 1.2 million people have little or no access to water or sanitation. And behind every number is a real person, perhaps even a child. The suffering is immense.
Yet, even the most determined efforts to reach those in need have fallen short. The UN is near its capacity to take in those without shelter. Relief services are overwhelmed. In short, the situation is unsustainable. That is why a ceasefire as soon as possible is essential, as both Secretary Kerry and Secretary-General Ban have emphasized from Cairo.
When we convened on Sunday, the Council President expressed our shared concern about the growing number of casualties and underscored the need to protect civilians. Yet, the violence continues to rise, as does the number of people who suffer from it. Yesterday, Secretary Kerry announced the United States is providing $47 million to help address the immediate humanitarian emergency in Gaza. These funds will provide critical humanitarian aid, including shelter, food, and medical supplies for Palestinians in Gaza. And we encourage all of our partners in the international community to respond to the humanitarian needs of the people in Gaza and the appeal issued by the United Nations.
All parties to the conflict must comply with international humanitarian law. That means respecting and protecting civilians and humanitarian and medical facilities. By the most recent tally, 77 UN structures had been damaged so far in the fighting. Militants in Gaza have repeatedly used civilian facilities for military purposes. Yesterday, a hospital in Gaza was struck by a tank shell, killing at least four people inside.
The humanitarian cease-fires brokered by the UN and the ICRC, on July 18th and July 20th, had potential to provide a reprieve from the violence and enable those in need of food, water and medicine to receive assistance. And yet, given a chance to help alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians, Hamas balked.
During both cease-fires, rockets and mortars were launched from Gaza at Israel. And Hamas has so far refused to agree to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, which could halt the fighting and ease the suffering of innocent people on both sides. The United States supports Egypt’s initiative.
As grave as the situation is now – and it is indeed grave – it can get worse. If the fighting persists, it will. Humanitarian conditions will continue to deteriorate. More civilians will suffer. And more innocent lives will be lost. The only solution is an immediate ceasefire. This could not be more urgent or more important, given the devastating consequences of the violence for civilian populations. That is why the United States will not rest until a ceasefire is achieved and the underlying issues fueling the conflict are addressed.
On Syria. Last week, we adopted a resolution in an effort to address the humanitarian devastation and suffering of the Syrian people. UN humanitarian agencies will be delivering humanitarian assistance through four additional border crossings, and across conflict lines, without the approval of the Syrian regime. United Nations agencies have to be able to reach people in desperate need of assistance in all parts of the country, including those controlled by the opposition, as the Assad regime denies such basic assistance to further its military and political goals. We hope it will make a difference in the lives of several million Syrians who have been without food, medicine, and other forms of assistance for more than a year.
As this Council is well aware, the resolution was necessary because of the regime’s cynical use of “starve or surrender” tactics and other deliberate strategies to deprive and punish people, particularly those living in contested and opposition-controlled areas.
The denial of basic humanitarian aid continues to be only one of the deadly weapons in the Assad regime’s deadly arsenal. Among the others: chemical and conventional weapons, including air power, tanks, mines, and snipers.
We have seen the devastation inflicted when the regime unleashes this arsenal on innocent civilians, as it did in Homs. In recent weeks, we have once again watched in horror as the Assad regime exercises a stranglehold on the people of Aleppo. Roughly half a million Syrians remain in the city, which has been encircled and slowly asphyxiated by Assad’s forces, which have obstructed the flow of basic humanitarian assistance such as food, water, and medicine. In addition, the regime has dropped roughly 15 to 20 barrel bombs a day on the city, and a similar number on the suburbs surrounding it.
As disturbing as the absolute number of bombs dropped is when and where they have been dropped. People in the Aleppo Provincial Council report that the regime has increasingly concentrated its bombings at the time of day when Muslims are breaking their daily fast, or Iftar. And they have chosen to target the places where people are most likely to congregate. This is obscene.
So, the Assad regime has taken Islam’s holiest month and used it to calibrate its bombing runs. It has taken advantage of people’s rituals of faith to maximize suffering. Even by the horrific bar this regime has set, the malevolence of this pattern is shocking. And Aleppo is not the only place Assad is using this tactic.
In Yarmouk, UNRWA was only recently allowed to resume distributing food and other aid to Palestinian refugees, after several months of being denied access by the regime. Anyone who has seen photos of the Yarmouk refugees knows that this population’s survival hangs by a thread. We are monitoring the situation there, in Aleppo, and in other sites closely and we call on the regime to fully implement Resolution 2139 and to comply with its obligations under Resolutions 2139 and 2165, as well as its basic obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law.
This is a snapshot of two places in the home of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Yet, as the cases of Aleppo and Yarmouk demonstrate, these humanitarian problems stem from a political crisis, and the barbaric tactics of a regime that has lost the legitimacy to lead. Fixing that crisis will ultimately demand a political solution that Syrians can embrace.
To this end, we welcome newly-appointed Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and Deputy Envoy Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy. They have agreed to take on the daunting task of providing good offices toward bringing an end to the violence and human rights violations that plague Syria, and promoting a peaceful solution to this long-standing crisis. They have our full support.
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