Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said it is more urgent than ever to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war that could spill into the Middle East and called on both sides to agree a ceasefire.
In a moment of drama at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Israel’s ambassador suddenly played the piercing 15-second siren that warns Israelis to run to bomb shelters to escape rocket attacks to highlight the threat his country faces.
Ron Prosor told the council that the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, is “intentionally and indiscriminately” threatening 3.5 million Israelis and “no nation, no people and no government could tolerate this”.
Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour had no props for his appeal to the council “to stop the bleeding” and revive the Palestinians’ “dying hopes” for an end to the conflict and peace with freedom.
“I speak on behalf of the suffering and grieving Palestinian people, who are enduring yet another barrage of death, destruction, trauma and terror,” he said.
Diplomats said Jordan has circulated a press statement, which is not legally binding, for the Security Council to consider that would call for a cease-fire.
Israel launched the new offensive on Tuesday to end rocket fire from Gaza that has reached deeper into the Jewish state and intensified in recent weeks amid tensions over the killing of three Israeli teenagers and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager.
The offensive has set off the heaviest fighting between Israel and Hamas since an eight-day battle in November 2012.
“It is unacceptable for citizens on both sides to permanently live in fear of the next aerial attack,” Mr Ban said.
The UN chief said the threat of an Israeli ground offensive and “an all-out escalation” is preventable only if Hamas stops firing rockets and mortars into Israel.
The secretary-general, who is engaged in an intense round of global diplomacy to try to end the conflict, called for “bold thinking and creative ideas” and urged the world to accelerate efforts to immediately end the violence.
“Now is not a time for further incitement or vengeance,” Mr Ban said. “Any further spiral of violence could have alarming unforeseen consequences,” he warned.
He again condemned Hamas and Islamic Jihad for launching a barrage of more than 550 rockets and mortars into Israel – but in a clear message to Israel he also said “the excessive use of force and endangering of civilian lives are also intolerable”.
He noted that 58 Palestinians, mainly civilians, are reported to have been killed and 339 injured, while Israeli attacks have destroyed or damaged some 150 homes and displaced 900 people.
“Once again, Palestinian civilians are caught between Hamas’ irresponsibility and Israel’s tough response,” Mr Ban said.
He said he urged Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in recent phone conversations “to exercise maximum restraint, show statesmanship and to weigh the risks of further escalation”.
“Gaza, and the region as a whole, cannot afford another full-blown war and another fault line,” Mr Ban said. “The potential negative spillover elsewhere in the West Bank is also unpredictable in an already tenuous and combustible situation.”
Mr Prosor told the council that while the secretary-general spoke “another five rockets were fired from Gaza”, with one landing on a house.
Israel is not looking “for a band-aid solution that will allow Hamas to rest and regroup”, he said. Its goal “is to remove the threat posed by Hamas by dismantling its military infrastructure and restore quiet in Israel”.
Prosor said Israel is taking “great measures” to avoid harming innocent civilians and accused Hamas of using civilians “as human shields” and targeting supply lines for food to Gaza and electrical plants that keep the lights on for its residents.
Mr Mansour rejected Israel’s “audacious claims” that Palestinians are being used as human shields “while it knowingly and intentionally strikes at densely populated civilian areas”.
The Palestinians also reject Israel’s claims to self-defence while “it deliberately carries out reprisals and collective punishment” for the killing of the three Israeli teenagers, which the Palestinian leadership has condemned, he said.
The Security Council has for years been deeply divided on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with the United States, which has veto power, strongly supporting Israel and the majority of members sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Mr Mansour told the council it “cannot remain paralysed and marginalised as Israeli war crimes continue”.
He demanded that members act to protect the Palestinian people, end the bloodshed, and hold Israel accountable “for its countless human rights violations and war crimes.”