Israel announced Friday it will open a humanitarian corridor to allow food, medicine and other aid into Lebanon a day after the United Nations warned of a growing humanitarian crisis from more than a week of intense fighting.
Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman said he expected the humanitarian corridor to be opened later Friday or Saturday.
The Israeli announcement followed appeals from Secretary-General Kofi Annan and many Arab and Western leaders including French President Jacques Chirac who called for “a humanitarian truce.”
It came as U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland addressed the Security Council and called on Israel to accept and guarantee safe passage for humanitarian goods into northern Lebanon by road, into the ports of Beirut, Tripoli and Tyre for sea cargo, and into Beirut airport for air shipments.
Whether Israel is prepared to meet these demands remains to be seen. Gillerman said details were still being worked out.
‘The cessation of terror’
Israel launched a military campaign against Lebanon after the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah captured two of its soldiers July 12. It sealed its border with Lebanon and imposed an air and sea blockade of its neighbor.
Gillerman first told two reporters that Israel had agreed to open a humanitarian corridor and then made the announcement in a speech to the U.N. Security Council. It was added at the last minute to his prepared text in which he said that before Israel can contemplate a cessation of hostilities, “we must insist on the cessation of terror.”
“In spite of the very difficult situation on the ground,” Gillerman said, “Israel is acutely aware of the humanitarian situation and I wish to inform the council that I have just received official confirmation from Israel that further to the corridor allowing evacuation from Lebanon, a two-way in-and-out humanitarian corridor to meet the needs of those affected on the Lebanese side has been established.”
“As the Israeli side of this mechanism is now being formulated, I would like to assure this council of the continued cooperation of the government of Israel on this important issue,” he said.
Lebanon’s special envoy Nouhad Mahmoud, who listened to Gillerman’s announcement, accused Israel in his speech to the council of destroying his country and demanded that Israel pay to rebuild Lebanon.
“We just heard the distinguished representative of Israel informing us that they have accepted a safe corridor for the humanitarian assistance to the victims of the aggression carried out by his country — as if we supposed to salute and pay tribute to the compassionate feelings they have,” Mahmoud said.
“But the whole world has witnessed how the Israeli military machine has turned Lebanon into ruins,” he told the council.
Qatar’s U.N. Ambassador Nassir Al-Nasser, the only Arab member of the Security Council, said the U.N. has requested equipment “used in such natural disasters as earthquakes, since the bombing has not spared anything, be it human beings or property.”
The Security Council has been accused by Arab nations and many other countries of doing nothing to stop the fighting. Lebanon on Saturday accused the United States of blocking a press statement — the weakest document the council can issue — calling for a cease-fire.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said he had spoken to several council members about a possible statement in the next day or two on humanitarian issues.
Egeland, who said he was heading to Lebanon at Annan’s request later Friday, spelled out to the council some of the damage.
“In Lebanon, there is widespread destruction of public infrastructure including residential housing, health facilities, schools, roads, bridges, fuel storage, airports and seaports,” he said, adding that the destruction of roads and bridges between Beirut and southern Lebanon will pose problems in getting aid to the region.
“It is estimated that Beirut only has days of fuel supplies remaining. Access problems are severely hampering humanitarian action. It is either too unsafe or physically impossible due to destruction to move relief supplies into or around large parts of the country,” Egeland told the council.
Over 500,000 Lebanese are believed to be affected by the conflict, he said.
Echoing Annan’s appeal for an immediate cessation of hostilities, he said that “with the conflict in Lebanon now in its second week, the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen.”
“The war, the terror, the attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure has to stop,” he said. “Too many children, women, elderly and other civilians have already lost their lives or are struggling to survive from their wounds.”
Death toll rises
Over 300 Lebanese have reportedly been killed and a thousand wounded, and “a third of the casualties are reportedly children,” Egeland said. “In northern Israel the rain of rockets continues to hit civilians and civilian infrastructure with some 30 killed, 200 wounded, also here, children.”
He said there is a one-month supply of food in Lebanon, including wheat, and possibly up to three months. “The primary concern is the destruction to food supply chains and the ability of the local population to purchase food from functional markets,” he said.
“In the cities, hospitals are functioning but they are overwhelmed by the number wounded and they’re suffering from power outages,” and there are reports suggesting some small dispensaries in southern Lebanon are running out of medicine, he said.
“Too many critically ill and wounded can, however, not reach hospitals in time because they are blocked by the bombardments or the road destruction,” Egeland said.
“With the number of people in shelters increasing, access to safe drinking water is also a growing concern,” he said.