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Palestinians inspect the rubble of destroyed buildings following Israeli airstrikes on the town of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. Mohammed Dahman/AP

UN chief uses rare power to demand immediate ceasefire in Gaza

Antonio Guterres has invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter, used only once prior in 1971.

UN SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTONIO Guterres has used a rarely exercised power, urging members of the UN Security Council to demand an immediate humanitarian ceasefire as the conflict in Gaza continues.

His letter to the council’s 15 members said Gaza’s humanitarian system was at risk of collapse after two months of war that has created “appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma”.

He demanded civilians be spared greater harm as he invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter.

Article 99 allows the secretary-general to inform the Security Council of matters they believe threaten international peace and security.

It came as Israeli troops battled Hamas militants in the heart of southern Gaza’s main city where Israel believes a suspected mastermind of the October 7 attacks is believed to be hiding.

Breaking through Hamas’s defences of Gaza’s second largest city, Israeli troops, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and bulldozers rolled into Khan Yunis, forcing already displaced civilians to flee again, witnesses said.

In his letter, Guterres said: “The international community has a responsibility to use all its influence to prevent further escalation and end this crisis.”

embedded4b6383fdde22435e98c2a8d24d1ed937 UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres Joshua A Bickel / AP Joshua A Bickel / AP / AP

A short draft resolution was circulated to council members late on Wednesday by the United Arab Emirates, the Arab representative on the council.

The resolution demands “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” and expresses “grave concern over the catastrophic situation in the Gaza Strip and the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population”.

Earlier yesterday, the 22-nation Arab Group at the UN strongly backed a ceasefire.

Palestinian UN ambassador Riyad Mansour said it is essential that the UN’s most powerful body demand a halt to the conflict.

Israel’s UN ambassador Gilad Erdan said the secretary-general invoked Article 99 to pressure Israel, accusing the UN chief of “a new moral low” and “bias against Israel”.

“The secretary-general’s call for a ceasefire is actually a call to keep Hamas’ reign of terror in Gaza,” Erdan said in a statement.

“Instead of the secretary-general explicitly pointing to Hamas’ responsibility for the situation and calling on the terrorist leaders to turn themselves in and return the hostages, thus ending the war, the secretary-general chooses to continue playing into Hamas’ hands.”

embeddedda19ee0feb104f198e146812edbe9a7b Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip arrive at a hospital in Rafah yesterday. Hatem Ali / AP Hatem Ali / AP / AP

In his letter, Guterres denounced “the abhorrent acts of terror” and the killing of more than 1,200 people in Israel by Hamas militants on October 7 and the abduction of some 250 people in the attack that started the war.

He urged the immediate release of more than 130 still held captive.

But Guterres noted the worsening state of Gaza under Israel’s ongoing military action, which it says is aimed at obliterating Hamas.

More than 16,200 people have been killed, and some 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been forcibly displaced into increasingly smaller areas.

Guterres said: “Amid constant bombardment by the Israel Defence Forces, and without shelter or the essentials to survive, I expect public order to completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions, rendering even limited humanitarian assistance impossible.”

A total collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, he said, would have “potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region”.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that invoking Article 99 was “a very dramatic constitutional move by the secretary-general”.

The only previous mention of a prior use of Article 99 was in December 1971.

“One doesn’t invoke this article lightly,” Dujarric said.

“I think given the situation on the ground and the risk of complete collapse, not only of our humanitarian operations but of civil order, it’s something that he felt needed to be done now.”

Fierce battles

Hamas said late last night on Telegram its fighters were engaged in fierce battles against Israeli troops “on all axes of the incursion into the Gaza Strip”, as it claimed they destroyed two dozen military vehicles in Khan Yunis and Beit Lahia in the north of the territory.

Earlier, the Israeli army said it had pierced defensive lines and carried out “targeted raids in the heart of the city”, where they found and destroyed 30 tunnel shafts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement that Israeli forces were closing in on the home of Hamas’s chief in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar, with a spokesman saying it is “underground” in the Khan Yunis area.

Sinwar stands accused of being one of the masterminds of the October 7 attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities, and saw around 240 hostages taken.

Israel declared war on Hamas after the deadliest attack in its history, vowing to eradicate the group and bring home all the hostages.

Sinwar has not been seen in public during the war, and Israel has named him and the leader of Hamas’s armed wing, Mohammed Deif, as its top military targets.

But humanitarian organisations have warned the spread of the war into the south of the Gaza Strip will leave civilians who fled the north, much of which is now destroyed, with nowhere to go.

Includes reporting by AFP

Press Association