UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres used a rarely exercised power on Wednesday, urging members of the UN Security Council to demand an immediate humanitarian ceasefire as the conflict in Gaza continues.

His letter to the council’s 15 members said Gaza’s humanitarian system was at risk of collapse after two months of war that has created “appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma”.

He demanded civilians be spared greater harm as he invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter.

Article 99 allows the secretary-general to inform the Security Council of matters they believe threaten international peace and security.

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UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres (Joshua A Bickel/AP)

Mr Guterres said: “The international community has a responsibility to use all its influence to prevent further escalation and end this crisis.”

A short draft resolution was circulated to council members late on Wednesday by the United Arab Emirates, the Arab representative on the council.

The resolution demands “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” and expresses “grave concern over the catastrophic situation in the Gaza Strip and the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population”.

Earlier on Wednesday, the 22-nation Arab Group at the UN strongly backed a ceasefire.

Palestinian UN ambassador Riyad Mansour said it is essential that the UN’s most powerful body demand a halt to the conflict.

Israel’s UN ambassador Gilad Erdan said the secretary-general invoked Article 99 to pressure Israel, accusing the UN chief of “a new moral low” and “bias against Israel”.

“The secretary-general’s call for a ceasefire is actually a call to keep Hamas’ reign of terror in Gaza,” Mr Erdan said in a statement.

“Instead of the secretary-general explicitly pointing to Hamas’ responsibility for the situation and calling on the terrorist leaders to turn themselves in and return the hostages, thus ending the war, the secretary-general chooses to continue playing into Hamas’ hands.”

In his letter, Mr Guterres denounced “the abhorrent acts of terror” and the killing of more than 1,200 people in Israel by Hamas militants on October 7 and the abduction of some 250 people in the attack that started the war.

He urged the immediate release of more than 130 still held captive.

But Mr Guterres noted the worsening state of Gaza under Israel’s ongoing military action, which it says is aimed at obliterating Hamas.

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Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip arrive at a hospital in Rafah, on Wednesday, December 6 (Hatem Ali/AP)

More than 16,200 people have been killed, and some 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been forcibly displaced into increasingly smaller areas.

Mr Guterres said: “Amid constant bombardment by the Israel Defence Forces, and without shelter or the essentials to survive, I expect public order to completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions, rendering even limited humanitarian assistance impossible.”

A total collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, he said, would have “potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region”.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that invoking Article 99 was “a very dramatic constitutional move by the secretary-general”.

The only previous mention of a prior use of Article 99 was in December 1971.

“One doesn’t invoke this article lightly,” Mr Dujarric said.

“I think given the situation on the ground and the risk of complete collapse, not only of our humanitarian operations but of civil order, it’s something that he felt needed to be done now.”