Thursday night’s order by the Israel Defense Forces to Palestinians in Gaza to evacuate their homes within 24 hours was dangerous and deeply troubling. Any demand for a mass evacuation on extremely short notice could have devastating humanitarian consequences.
The evacuation order applies to approximately 1.1 million people. It applies to a territory that is already besieged, under aerial bombardment and without fuel, electricity, water and food. It applies to a territory that has suffered critical damage to roads and infrastructure in the past week, making the act of evacuating nearly impossible in the first place. It applies to United Nations staff members and more than 200,000 people sheltering in U.N. facilities, including schools, health centers and clinics. It applies to hundreds of thousands of children: Nearly half of Gaza is under the age of 18.
As secretary general of the United Nations, I appeal to Israeli authorities to reconsider.
We have approached a moment of calamitous escalation, and find ourselves at a critical crossroads. It is imperative that all parties — and those with influence over them — do everything possible to avoid fresh violence or spillover of the conflict to the West Bank and the wider region.
We urgently need a way out of this disastrous dead end before more lives are lost.
There are several key priorities to focus on right now in order to pull the world back from this abyss. The United Nations and our partners need rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access now throughout Gaza. Humanitarian aid including fuel, food and water must be allowed to enter.
All hostages in Gaza must be released. Civilians must not be used as human shields.
International humanitarian law — including the Geneva Conventions — must be respected and upheld. Civilians on both sides must be protected at all times. Hospitals, schools, clinics and United Nations premises must never be targeted. I mourn my colleagues in Gaza who have already lost their lives in the last week. And still, United Nations personnel are working nonstop to support the people of Gaza. We will continue to do so.
I have been in constant contact with leaders in the region. It is clear that the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East is polarizing communities around the world, widening divides, and spreading and amplifying hate. If truth is the first casualty of war, reason is not far behind.
I am horrified to hear the language of genocide entering the public discourse. People are losing sight of each other’s humanity. Brutality and violence cannot be allowed to obscure a fundamental truth: We are all the product of our lived realities and collective history.
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset put it this way: “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” — “I am myself and my circumstances.” And sometimes, those circumstances are unbearable.
When I put myself in the shoes of an Israeli Jew, I experience the recent horrors in the context of two millenniums of discrimination, expulsion, exile and extermination, leading to the Holocaust. During the 15th century, my own country of Portugal expelled or forcibly converted its Jewish community and after a period of discrimination, they were forced to leave. As an Israeli Jew, I would be painfully aware that some in our neighborhood do not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
And if today, as an Israeli Jew, I see young people massacred at a concert, grandmothers shot in their homes in cold blood, and scores of civilians, including children, brutally abducted and held at gunpoint, it is only natural for me to feel enormous pain, insecurity and, yes, blind fury.
Then I try to consider the circumstances across the divide: if I were a Palestinian living in Gaza. My community has been marginalized and forgotten for generations. My grandparents may have been forced to leave their villages and homes. If I’m lucky, my children have already survived several wars that flattened their neighborhoods and killed their friends.
As a Palestinian, I have nowhere to go and no political solution in sight. I see the peace process essentially ignored by the international community, with ever more settlements, ever more evictions, and endless occupation. It is only natural for me to feel an enormous sense of pain, insecurity and again, blind fury.
Clearly, the grievances felt by the Palestinian people do not justify the terror that was unleashed against civilians in Israel. I once again utterly condemn the abhorrent attacks by Hamas and others that terrorized Israel.
And clearly, the horrific acts by Hamas do not justify responding with collective punishment of the Palestinian people.
But any solution to this tragic, decades-long ordeal of death and destruction requires full recognition of the circumstances of both Israelis and Palestinians, of both their realities and both their perspectives.
We cannot ignore the power and the pull of collective memory; the circumstances that shape and define our identity and our very essence.
Israel must see its legitimate needs for security materialized, and Palestinians must see a clear perspective for the establishment of their own state realized, in line with United Nations resolutions, international law and previous agreements. If the international community truly believes in these two objectives, we need to find a way to work together to find real, lasting solutions — solutions that are based on our common humanity and that recognize the need for people to live together, despite histories and circumstances that tear them apart.
Ortega y Gasset’s quotation concludes: “Y si no la salvo a ella, no me salvo yo.” (“If I don’t save my circumstances, I cannot save myself.”)
This horrifying cycle of ever-escalating violence and bloodshed must end. It is clear that the two sides in this conflict cannot achieve a solution without concerted action and strong support from us, the international community. That is the only way to save any chance of security and opportunity for both Israelis and Palestinians.
António Guterres is the secretary general of the United Nations.