The UN Mideast envoy said on Tuesday that Israel and Hamas were "minutes away" from another "devastating confrontation" in Gaza on Saturday – a clash averted after UN and Egyptian diplomatic efforts got both sides to "step back from the brink."
Nikolay Mladenov warned that “unless we begin in earnest the crucial work required to change the current deteriorating dynamics, another explosion is almost a certainty.”
He told the Security Council that he just returned from Gaza and “the situation is calming down although tensions remain,” warning that the still “perilous” face-off could lead to the fourth war in a decade between Hamas and Israel.
“Only through the repeated, collective efforts of all sides has another catastrophic escalation been averted over the past weeks,” Mr Mladenov said.
The latest outbursts of violence followed months of near-weekly border protests organised by Gaza’s Hamas rulers. Over 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire since the protests began March 30.
The protests were aimed at ending the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that has brought severe economic hardship to the territory and demanding a ‘right of return’ for descendants of Palestinian refugees to ancestral homes in what is now Israel.
More than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation, and two-thirds of Gaza’s two million residents are descendants of refugees.
Israel says it is defending its sovereign border and accuses Hamas of using the protests as a cover for attempts to breach the border fence and attack Israeli civilians and soldiers.
Israel's UN ambassador, Danny Danon, said flaming kites sent across the border by Hamas have destroyed over 7,400 acres – "that is half the size of Manhattan."
Mr Danon said it is time that the Security Council declares Hamas a terrorist organisation like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, saying it is "holding hostage the entire population of Gaza" and its goal is to destroy Israel.
Mr Danon again urged Hamas to release two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two soldiers. “One cannot demand humanitarian assistance to Gaza, which we support, while refusing to ensure the basic humanitarian rights of returning our captives and our fallen,” he said.
Palestinian ambassador Riyad Mansour said the “dire humanitarian situation has placed an explosive pressure on the infrastructure and caused loss of livelihood among the entire population of the Gaza Strip.”
He accused Israel of persisting “with its willful killing of Palestinian civilians and disregard of human life,” and said it is “imperative” that international protection be provided for Gaza’s civilian population.
Mr Mansour said it is also imperative to mobilise funds for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), "given its vital role in Gaza and beyond."
UNRWA is facing a funding crisis following the Trump administration's decision to cut some $300 million to the agency this year. It is now reviewing some $200 million (Dh740mn) in assistance for the Palestines.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made no mention of the cuts to UNRWA in her speech, but called for Arab and Islamic nations to do more in support of the Palestinians and not just generous with their words.
She said Iran, Algeria and Tunisia gave nothing to UNRWA last year and Pakistan and Egypt gave just $20,000.
Since 1993, Ms Haley said, the United States has provided more than $6 billion in assistance to Palestines.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador, Abdallah Al Mouallimi, had a sharp reply, though he did not mention the United States, which is a close ally.
He said Saudi Arabia gave $100 million to UNRWA over the past year, $1 billion to UNRWA over the last two decades, "and more than $6 billion, to the Palestinian people over the last two decades in the form of humanitarian development."
"Saudi Arabia strongly believes in actions, not words," Al Mouallimi said.
Israel also drew sharp criticism at the council’s monthly Mideast meeting from many countries over last week’s approval by its parliament of a bill defining it as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Mr Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador, said the new law “has transformed a situation of de-facto apartheid into a situation of apartheid by law.”
Iran's deputy Ambassador Eshagh Al Habib said the law means the legalisation of “racism and apartheid, and ultimately, it means legitimising exclusion, segregation and systemic inequality.”
He recalled the General Assembly’s 1975 resolution calling Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination” that was revoked in 1991. Nearly 30 years later, Al Habib said, “it is crystal clear that by doing so, the UN General Assembly has only emboldened Israel to legalise racism.”