Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he is “extremely concerned” at the prospect of an Israeli ground offensive on Rafah in southern Gaza, with many Palestinians now sheltering there “at grave risk”.
Israeli early on Monday launched air strikes in support of a special forces operation that freed two hostages in the area near the Egyptian border where many Palestinians have taken refuge after months of conflict.
International voices including US president Joe Biden and aid agencies have cautioned against an expected ground assault on Rafah given the high risk to the civilian population now concentrated there.
Mr Varadkar urged an immediate “sustained humanitarian ceasefire” in place of the expected offensive.
“There are more than a million and a half Palestinians taking refuge there, having been told that it would be safe,” he said.
“There is nowhere else they can credibly go.
“In such a densely populated area, a military operation will put them at very grave risk. Israel needs to listen to the many concerned voices from around the world and to step back.
“There urgently needs to be a sustained humanitarian ceasefire to allow humanitarian access, and to allow hostages to be released,” Mr Varadkar said.
Tánaiste Micheál Martin has indicated that Ireland remains strongly supportive of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) because it gets vital aid and supplies to Gaza and Palestinians more generally in the North and West Bank.
Israel has claimed it discovered a tunnel network running partly beneath the body’s headquarters, describing it as proof that Hamas is exploiting the agency. Some countries suspended funding for the UNRWA after previous Israeli allegations, including that staff at the agency doubled as Hamas operatives.
Speaking in Cork the Tánaiste described UNRWA as being “absolutely essential”.
“There are 30,000 employees in UNRWA across all the region - 13,000 in Gaza alone. In respect of education and health services and food and vital humanitarian supplies there is no option actually but to continue supporting UNRWA.
“I will be meeting with Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, this week. We did issue a very quick statement in the aftermath of what transpired to underpin the centrality of UNRWA to the population in Gaza and that is the bottom line really.”
Mr Martin said he understands the importance of UNRWA.
“Anybody I speak to understands that and gets that. We are appealing to people to make sure that they do not suspend aid.”
He said that Mr Lazzarini has taken “very important steps” in respect of dealing with those against whom allegations have been made.
“Also in facilitating an independent review outside of the United Nations jurisdiction into the organisation - there were attempts last year to undermine UNRWA in respect of school textbooks.
“A German institute was brought in by the European Union to examine that and they came back and said that the schools run by UNRWA in Gaza were run according to UNESCO standards.”
“There were ongoing efforts over the years to undermine UNRWA and in my view, having been to Gaza in the past and having been to Jordan and the West Bank, one cannot replace UNRWA with one click of the fingers in respect of the scale and the enormity of the humanitarian crisis.”
“I am very clear about that - it will be interesting to meet with UNRWA later this week to review the situation. Many people across Europe and the world know the reality of the situation.”
Mr Martin also stressed that Ireland is extremely concerned at the humanitarian devastation which could occur if the Israeli armed forces conduct a ground offensive in Rafah.
“I issued a very strong statement on Saturday in relation to this - I am in no doubt but that a continued bombardment of Rafah will constitute a war crime.
“It will gravely violate international humanitarian law. We are looking now at what is the largest refugee camp in the world - 1.5 million people in Rafah alone - they cannot be displaced safely.
“To bomb and to mount a military operation in such a confined area with so many people is absolutely inhumane and unacceptable.
“The international community must do everything it possibly can to put the pressure on Israel not to proceed with this. It is very, very serious - it will create catastrophic conditions on top of what already are dire situations for civilians in Gaza.
“It is unacceptable what is happening and we have to do what we can which we will through the various forums we are members of, particularly the European Union and the United Nations. Working with the Arab nations as well and making it very clear to Israel that we view this as a violation of international humanitarian law.”