UN’s António Guterres calls for immediate ceasefire to end ‘vast suffering’ in Gaza

Secretary general’s comments spark fierce row and Israeli calls for resignation as 700 deaths are reported in a day and hospitals close for want of electricity

The United Nations’ secretary general has called for an immediate ceasefire to end “epic suffering” in the Gaza Strip after Israeli airstrikes reportedly killed more than 700 people in a single day and hospitals began to shut down for lack of fuel.

António Guterres said the bombardment and blockade of Gaza amounted to the “collective punishment of the Palestinian people” and violated international law, comments that sparked a fierce row with Israel.

“To ease epic suffering, make the delivery of aid easier and safer and facilitate the release of hostages. I reiterate my appeal for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” he said.

Guterres said the 7 October attacks by Hamas were “appalling” but did not happen in a vacuum. “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation,” he said. “They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

Israel’s envoy to the UN, Gilad Erdan, called on Guterres to resign immediately, accusinghim of being detached from reality. “His comments … constitute a justification for terrorism and murder. It’s sad that a person with such views is the head of an organisation that arose after the Holocaust.”

Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, cancelled a planned meeting with Gutteres.

Airstrikes killed at least 704 people in the past day, the Hamas-run health ministry said, bringing Gaza’s total death toll after 18 days of bombing to 5,791 including 2,360 children.

Twenty trucks of aid that had been expected to enter the besieged territory on Tuesday were unable to cross into Gaza from Egypt amid wrangling between Israel, Egypt, the US and the UN over procedures for inspecting the shipments.

The Palestinian Red Crescent later confirmed that eight trucks had arrived in Gaza carrying water, food and medicine.

Asked by reporters in Washington whether aid was getting into Gaza, the US president, Joe Biden, replied: “Not fast enough.”

Three hospitals could no longer function because they had run out of fuel to generate electricity, the Palestinian health minister, Mai al-Kaila, told a press conference. She called for a safe corridor to ferry injured and critically ill people to Egyptian hospitals.

UN workers distribute aid to Palestinian families taking refuge in a school in Khan Younis, Gaza.
UN workers distribute aid to Palestinian families taking refuge in a school in Khan Younis, Gaza. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu/Getty Images

Late on Tuesday an Israeli military spokesperson said fuel supplies would not be included in any aid shipments to the territory. “Fuel will not enter Gaza as Hamas uses it for its operational needs,” said R Adm Daniel Hagari. “If necessary, Hamas can return the fuel it stole from UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees] and give it to the hospitals.”

Early on Wednesday, Palestinian media reported that three people had been killed in an Israeli strike near the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Citing the director of Jenin Governmental hospital, local media also said that more than 20 people were injured in the strike.

The Israeli military said in a statement that it had carried out “counterterrorism activities” in the area, but did not mention casualties.

On Tuesday, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets into central Israel, triggering sirens and wounding two people with shrapnel. Google said it had disabled live traffic conditions and “busyness information” in Israel and Gaza on its Maps and Waze apps as a safety precaution.

In a rare intervention, the former US president Barack Obama warned Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that cutting off food, water and electricity could “harden Palestinian attitudes for generations” and weaken international support for Israel.

The accelerating death toll suggests a widening of airstrikes as Israel continues to mass troops and equipment in advance of an expected ground offensive against Hamas, a response to the group’s onslaught in southern Israel on 7 October that killed more than 1,400 people and left more than 220 people as hostages in Gaza.

In a speech to combat troops at an army base, Netanyahu said the next stage of the conflict was coming. “We have only one mission, to smash Hamas. We will not stop until we complete it, with your help.”

The chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, said Hamas leaders already regretted their attack and would continue to pay for it. “This war has one address: the Hamas leadership and all those who acted under its command. They will pay the price for what they did,” he told the media near the Gaza border.

Israeli tanks mass on the border with the Gaza Strip
Israeli tanks mass on the border with the Gaza Strip. Photograph: Jim Hollander/UPI/Shutterstock

Halevi said the army was fine-tuning its planned offensive and tacitly rebuked Israeli commentators who have complained at the delay. “We are making use of every minute to be even more prepared. And every minute that passes on the other side, we strike the enemy even more. Killing terrorists, destroying infrastructure, collecting more intelligence for the next stage.” Halevi said he wanted Gaza’s civilians to emerge “as unharmed as possible”.

Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, released recordings of six interrogations of Hamas militants captured after the group’s attack in southern Israel. They were handcuffed, with one wearing a bloody T-shirt and another wincing in pain.

The men said they were under orders to kill young men and kidnap women, children and elderly people, and that they had been promised financial rewards of up to $10,000 (£8,200). Some said the plan was to clear the population and to seize and hold positions.

The Associated Press, which viewed the recordings, said it could not independently verify them and said the captured men could have been acting under duress.

The recordings were the latest round in a public relations battle between Hamas and Israel. On Monday Hamas released a video showing the handover of hostages Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, and Nurit Yitzhak, 79. Lifshitz shook the hand of one of the Hamas gunmen. At a press conference in Tel Aviv she described her ordeal as hellish, but also said some abductors had shown kindness. Israeli commentators called her comments a PR debacle.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, urged UN member states to use their influence and leverage to secure the release of remaining hostages. He also called on them to stop others opening another front in the conflict. “Don’t throw fuel on the fire,” he told the UN security council. He also called for an increase in the trickle of humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza.

The Biden administration has not joined calls for a ceasefire and said Israel still has “work to do” in targeting Hamas leaders.

Russia said on Tuesday that it would veto a US-drafted UN security council resolution defending the “inherent right of all states” to self-defence while calling for compliance with international law and backing “humanitarian pauses” to let in aid but not a full ceasefire.

Blinken said: “No member of this council – no nation in this entire body – could or would tolerate the slaughter of its people..”

Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said: “The main sign that the whole world is expecting from the security council is a call for a swift and unconditional ceasefire on the opposing parties. This is precisely what is not in the American draft.”

The foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, run by Hamas’s rival, Fatah, called inaction by the security council “inexcusable”.

“The ongoing massacres being deliberately and systematically and savagely perpetrated by Israel – the occupying power against the Palestinian civilian population under illegal occupation – must be stopped,” Riyad al-Maliki said.

With the security council deadlocked, the UN general assembly, whose decisions are non-binding, will also take up the crisis on Thursday at the request of a number of countries including Jordan and Russia.

This article was amended on 25 October 2023. The headline and introduction of an earlier version stated the UN had called for a ceasefire in Gaza. The call was made by the secretary general, António Guterres, not the UN as a whole.