UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. envoy for the Middle East peace process warned Thursday that the Gaza Strip could erupt into conflict and urged de-escalation.
"Gaza is coming apart as we speak under the pressure of an explosive combination of negative humanitarian, security and political factors," Nickolay Mladenov told the U.N. Security Council's monthly meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
"If another conflict between Hamas and Israel were to erupt, this would have devastating consequences for Palestinians in Gaza," he said of Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group that has run the Gaza Strip for the past decade. Two million Palestinians live in Gaza in increasingly poor conditions.
Gaza has experienced conflict four times in the past 12 years.
For the past month, thousands of Palestinians have been protesting each Friday at the security fence that separates Gaza from Israel. The protests, largely peaceful, have sometimes turned violent, with some demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails and attempting to breach the fence. The Israel Defense Forces have responded with force. The U.N. says 35 Palestinians have been killed and scores have been injured since the protests began.
The demonstrations are taking place in the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of Israel's creation on May 14. Palestinians mark the following day, which they call al-Nakba or "the disaster," commemorating the mass displacement of Palestinians after Israel's independence.
"As these protests continue, tension and the potential for serious incidents and further casualties will increase," Mladenov warned.
He urged Israel to "calibrate its use of force" and minimize its use of live ammunition, and he said Hamas should keep Palestinian demonstrators away from the fence and prevent violent provocations. Mladenov also called for the protection of children, who he said are "at grave risk" and "must not be intentionally put in danger or targeted." At least four children have been killed by Israeli fire.
"Anyone who truly cares about children in Gaza should insist that Hamas immediately stop using children as cannon fodder in its conflict with Israel," said U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
"The international community must demand answers from Israel," Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour said. "The Security Council's failure to address this situation cannot be justified."
"Israel will never apologize for defending our country," its envoy, Danny Danon, told council members. He said Israel had an obligation to protect its citizens and would do so while minimizing civilian casualties to the other side.
He blamed Hamas for using women and children as human shields. "This is evil in its purest form," Danon said.
Palestinian refugee funding
U.N. envoy Mladenov also warned council members that the U.N. agency that cares for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, was at risk of running out of money by the summer.
"Shutting down or reducing services at this critical time would further destabilize the region," Mladenov said.
He said in Gaza alone, the agency was a lifeline for 1 million people, providing them health care, education and food assistance.
"Without those services, we should anticipate a dramatic increase in social unrest, in poverty, in hunger and in psychological problems," he said.
In January, the United States, the single largest contributor to UNRWA, announced that it would withhold 83 percent of its 2018 annual contribution , or about $300 million, throwing the agency into a financial crisis.
An international pledging conference in Rome last month raised $100 million, but the agency is still struggling to fully fund its operations, which care for 5 million registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.