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A top United Nations humanitarian official on Sunday offered a grim assessment of Israel's war against Hamas as the world marked International Human Rights Day.
In a statement, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator in the Occupied Palestinian Territory Lynn Hastings condemned Hamas' October 7 attack on Israel but said Israel's ongoing response in Gaza was disproportionate.
“Today could have been a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, born from the atrocities of two world wars," Hastings said. "Instead, human rights are assaulted in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The violations perpetrated on both populations will bring neither peace nor security to either of these nations.”
Non-state armed actors like Hamas had obligations under international law, Hastings said, adding that the perpetrators of the October 7 attacks in which more than 1,400 Israelis were killed and more than 240 others taken hostage must be held accountable.
“The killings, sexual violence and kidnappings … traumatized an entire nation. Elderly, disabled, and children have not been spared,” she said.
Since October 7, Israeli forces have turned much of Gaza into a wasteland. Airstrikes have reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble and nearly 2 million people — the vast majority of Gaza’s population — have been forced to flee their homes, according to the UN.
At least 17,700 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, citing sources from the Hamas-controlled enclave.
Israel’s response "cannot be justified" Hastings said.
“The air strikes against civilians and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, and UN facilities and the repeated displacement of the civilian population cannot be justified. Nor can the siege, depriving the entire Gaza population of food, water, health care and hygiene,” Hastings said.
“In 2023, I should not have to issue such a statement. It is as if we have learned nothing in the past 75 years.”
Some context: Israel's foreign minister said last week he had revoked Hastings' visa due to the "bias of the UN." The move came as multiple UN officials warned of an "apocalyptic" situation in Gaza for displaced civilians, who face overcrowding and the spread of disease.
Khan Younis resident Ahmad Naseem on Sunday told CNN he saw a shell hit his neighbors' home, killing five and injuring multiple others.
As his city in southern Gaza has become a major focus of Israel’s ground operations, the 38-year-old said he has moved his wife and 18-month-old son to a neighbor's ground floor flat to feel a little bit safer.
But finding essential food and drinkable water remains a major challenge, he told CNN on a phone call.
The price of basic items like flour has gone up eight-fold since the start of the conflict, and cooking gas, in particular, is in very short supply, he said.
The couple started using plastic and cardboard to make fire to cook food.
As evening set in, the intensity of artillery fire reduced slightly, Naseem added, but the sounds of ground clashes and military vehicles became closer.
About Khan Younis: The city is located in the southern part of the Gaza strip. It was where thousands of Palestinians fled to earlier in the war when Israel called for an evacuation of northern Gaza and directed residents southwards. Now, on Saturday, Israel issued another “urgent appeal” for evacuation — this time asking civilians of Khan Younis to move to an area on the coast, which has few facilities. It is unclear how many people were aware of the instruction given the lack of communications networks and internet availability in much of Gaza.
In a statement on Friday, the Israeli military said it continues to fight in Khan Younis, which it said is a “main stronghold” of Hamas.
Dark clouds of smoke billowed over the skyline of Khan Younis in Gaza on Sunday as Israel expanded its operations in the south of the strip, according to a video livestreamed by Reuters.
The video, which was shot from the rooftop of the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, shows heavy smoke on the horizon — with some explosions heard in the distance. CNN has also geolocated a video from social media that shows the sounds of heavy gunfire in Khan Younis.
Meanwhile, the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, said the southern city has come under “a series of airstrikes and artillery shelling on a number of areas" Sunday and hospitals in the area are facing increased pressure.
In an update Sunday, Israel's military said it struck more than 250 Hamas targets in the past 24 hours, including what it called Hamas military communication sites and tunnels in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military also said it continued to engage in intense battles with Hamas fighters in the southern city of Khan Younis this week.
On Saturday, the IDF issued “an urgent appeal” for civilians to evacuate from much of Khan Younis amid fierce fighting in the area. It is unclear how many people were aware of the instruction given the lack of communications networks and internet availability in much of Gaza.
Catch up on some of the other latest developments in the war:
- "Unprecedented" disaster: Speaking at the Doha Forum on Sunday, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani said Gaza is witnessing an “unprecedented humanitarian disaster.” Despite giving a downbeat assessment on both parties’ willingness to agree to another truce, he said efforts were “continuing.”
- Palestinian Ministry of Health says casualty figures closing in on 18,000: At least 17,700 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks in Gaza from October 7 through December 9, according to a report published by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah on Sunday. The report cites medical sources from the Hamas-controlled enclave. The report further states that 70% of the fatalities were children, women, and the elderly. Meanwhile, the Hamas-controlled ministry of health in Gaza reported a higher number, which includes casualties up to Sunday, totaling 17,997.
- IDF soldier death toll increases: The Israel Defense Forces announced the death of another IDF soldier in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, bringing the total number of reported IDF soldiers killed in Gaza since the conflict began to 97. About 600 IDF members have been wounded since the ground invasion began on October 27, the IDF said Sunday.
- Ceasefire calls: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres says he “will not give up” calling for a ceasefire in Gaza — after the Security Council failed to pass a resolution demanding an immediate one. Speaking at Sunday’s Doha Forum, he warned that public order would “completely break down soon.”
- Israel believes 137 hostages remain in Gaza: The number of people Israel considers to be held hostage in Gaza remains at 137 — of whom 117 are thought to be alive, while 20 are believed to be dead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office told CNN Sunday.
- Death toll in occupied West Bank rises to 275: The number of Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks in the occupied West Bank between October 7 and December 9 has risen to 275, according to a report published by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah on Sunday.
- US secretary of state warns Israel that more needs to be done to protect civilians: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that more needs to be done to protect civilians and provide humanitarian aid to people in the enclave. “The intent is there, but the results are not always manifesting themselves," Blinken told CNN on Sunday. The US official also forcefully condemned sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas during the October 7 attack and blasted those who have not condemned it or were slow to do so.
A convoy of 100 trucks carrying humanitarian aid entered Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah crossing Sunday, according to a statement published by the Palestinian crossing authority.
Three of the trucks had 129,000 liters of fuel and two trucks contained cooking gas, the statement from Sunday added.
A total of 513 people exited the Gaza Strip on Sunday, including 468 foreigners and 25 injured Palestinians, accompanied by 20 individuals.
The current count of trucks is consistent with the daily average permitted over the past week.
Prior to the conflict, the United Nations reported that an average of 455 trucks delivered aid supplies each day.
Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), accused the Israeli military of attacking a marked evacuation convoy in Gaza on November 18.
Two family members of MSF staff were killed; one was a volunteer nurse at Shifa Hospital, a news release from MSF from December 1 said.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told CNN it recognizes the special protections given to medical teams under international humanitarian law, and “takes action to prevent harm to them.” The IDF also added that when it strikes military targets, it takes feasible precautions to mitigate civilian casualties.
MSF said its convoy that was "clearly identified as MSF vehicles" was attacked while returning to their offices in Gaza City after the Israeli military did not allow it to cross the last checkpoint near Wadi Gaza in order to get to the south of Gaza, as the IDF urged people there to do.
MSF said it initially informed both parties to the conflict that it was heading south and followed the itinerary indicated by the Israeli army to go along Salah Eddine street in five marked vehicles.
“We stayed there around three hours. It was getting dark. Hundreds of people were waiting and some of them decided to head back north because the checkpoint would not let them through,” an MSF staff member who was part of the convoy said in the statement.
After hearing shots fired, the convoy decided to return to its offices in Gaza City, according to the statement.
"We contacted Paul [an MSF colleague in Jerusalem] to inform him that we would head back because we were not allowed to pass the checkpoint. He said he would ask for authorization for us to go back,” the MSF staff member said.
The convoy was allegedly attacked close to MSF’s office on its way back in the late afternoon, the statement said.
“I saw tanks and snipers at the top of the buildings. I was terrified when I saw that the snipers and the tanks were pointing their weapons at us, especially at the fourth and the fifth van [in the convoy],” said a second MSF staff member present with the convoy. "They started opening fire at us and when a bullet grazed my forehead, I got a superficial injury. The bullet hit my colleague Alaa in the head, he sat next to me.”
Alaa died as a result of the attack, the staff member said.
Separately on November 20, while sheltering at the MSF offices, staff said they saw five MSF vehicles and their clinic in Gaza City allegedly damaged by an Israeli bulldozer and a heavy military vehicle, which were all identifiable by the MSF logo, the release said.
“Before they were destroyed, these MSF vehicles were potential evidence for any independent investigation into the November 18 attack on the MSF convoy,” the statement said.
After the five MSF vehicles were destroyed, MSF teams in the south of Gaza sent more vehicles to Gaza City to attempt an evacuation again, the release stated.
“However, they were also hit by bullets while approaching the MSF clinic, and the evacuation was canceled. On November 24, those vehicles were also destroyed by Israeli forces,” the release said.
“Eventually, our colleagues and their families were able to reach the south once the truce came into effect on the morning of November 24, thanks to the vehicles of other civilians evacuating,” the release said.
MSF has called for an independent investigation and a formal explanation for the attack from Israeli authorities, the release says.
Dozens of Palestinian civilians were killed, with others wounded, after a series of Israel air raids across the Gaza Strip on Sunday, according to the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA.
WAFA reported that 45 civilians were killed in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza on Sunday after Israel launched “violent air raids” that targeted a house. The news agency says several people are still missing, buried under the rubble.
Nine more civilians were killed in a residential square in Jabalya al-Balad, according to WAFA.
Meanwhile, in southern Gaza, the city of Khan Younis has come under “a series of airstrikes and artillery shelling on a number of areas,” on Sunday, according to WAFA.
WAFA reported that in the northern and eastern parts of Khan Younis, Israel “targeted homes in which residents were sheltering, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.”
Hospitals have also faced increased pressure in Khan Younis, with medical sources telling WAFA that wounded people arriving at the Nasser Medical Complex are having to lay on the ground because there are “no beds, medicines, and medical supplies available for them.”
WAFA said the vicinity of the Gaza European Hospital in Khan Younis has been bombed, with Israeli attacks occurring through Saturday night and during the day on Sunday.
More context: According to the Israel Defense Forces, the Israeli military has stuck 22,000 targets in Gaza since October 7.
In a statement on Friday, the Israeli military said it continues to fight in Khan Younis, which it said is a “main stronghold” of Hamas. On Saturday, the IDF issued “an urgent appeal” for civilians to evacuate from much of Khan Younis amid fierce fighting in the area. It is unclear how many people were aware of the instruction given the lack of communications networks and internet availability in much of Gaza.
In response to a CNN inquiry about where residents of Khan Younis should evacuate to, the Israel Defense Forces said that “the general instruction for residents is to move to the Al-Muwasi area, as well as blocks updated in the IDF interactive map published last week.”
Al-Muwasi is a strip of land of some 20 square kilometers on the coast. A statement last month by UN agencies and humanitarian groups such as Care International, Mercy Corps, and the World Health Organization, said the area could not function as a safe zone until all sides pledged not to fight there. Al-Muwasi has few facilities and is largely open land but has already seen an influx of people trying to escape from the fighting.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday forcefully condemned sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas during the October 7 attack and blasted those who have not forcefully condemned it or were slow to do so.
“I don’t know why countries, leaders, international organizations were so slow to focus on this, to bring it to people’s attention. I’m glad it is finally happening,” Blinken told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
"The atrocities that we saw on October 7 are almost beyond human description or beyond our capacity to digest. And we’ve talked about them before, but the sexual violence that we saw on October 7 is beyond anything that I’ve seen either," he said.
The United Nations heard testimony about allegations of sexual and gender-based violence by Hamas at a panel hosted by Israel at the UN headquarters in New York last week. Several speakers reiterated that some human rights groups such as UN Women were too slow to condemn the alleged rape and sexual violence.
Asked by Tapper why the United Nations and the international community have been so slow to respond to the allegations, Blinken said, “I think it is a question that these organizations, these countries need to ask themselves.”
House Democrats are planning to introduce a resolution condemning Hamas’ use of sexual violence and rape against Israeli women after they were dismayed by the response to the allegations from some lawmakers on the left, including Progressive Caucus chairwoman Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
Israeli police are interrogating suspects and compiling evidence, including video, forensics and witness testimony, to investigate accusations of rape during the attacks. Witnesses to the aftermath of the attacks say women and girls were sexually assaulted, tortured and killed.
CNN cannot independently verify individual allegations and claims.
However, several first responders who attended the scenes of the October 7 attack told CNN the attacks were overwhelmingly gruesome and that some female victims were found undressed.
Hamas denied that its militants committed rape during the attacks in a statement last week on Telegram and decried what it called “the coordination of some Western media outlets with the Zionist misleading campaigns that promote unfounded lies and allegations aimed at demonizing the Palestinian resistance… .”
Organizers of the UN meeting refuted that denial by showing mounting evidence that rape occurred during the attacks on October 7, including graphic video footage of bodies, videos of Hamas fighters admitting under interrogation that rape occurred and testimony from Israeli police officers and witnesses to the attack and its aftermath.
Speakers who prepared bodies for burial described evidence that militants gang raped some victims and purposely shot or mutilated victims in genital regions
CNN’s Sam Fossum, Catherine Thorbecke, Ivana Kottasová and Annie Grayer contributed reporting to this post.
Cyprus security services, in partnership with Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, disrupted an Iranian group which Israel says was planning to attack Israeli and Jewish targets on the island, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Sunday.
“Thanks to the anti-terrorist activity and the arrest of the cell by the security services in Cyprus, a lot of information was received that led to the exposure of the threats, the methods of operation, the targets of the attack and the Iranian planning to kill innocent people in Cyprus and in other arenas,” the statement said.
The statement accused Iran of expanding its “efforts to promote terrorist activities around the world” since October 7.
Netanyahu's office said Iran has used its presence in the north of Cyprus, which is under de facto Turkish control, to plan activities against Jewish targets.
It added that many Israelis have moved to Cyprus since the outbreak of the war.
CNN has reached out to Cypriot authorities for comments.