By Hisham Allam and Naureen Hossain
CAIRO & UNITED NATIONS, Oct 22 2023 – The ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip has resulted in a humanitarian crisis described as “catastrophic” – and even as aid arrived, strikes intensified.
According to the health ministry in Gaza, Israeli attacks have killed 4,385 Palestinians and wounded 13,650 more since October 7. The victims include 3,983 children and 3,300 women. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, another 64 Palestinians have been killed and 1,230 injured by Israeli forces in the same period, as reported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Palestinian rockets and other attacks have claimed the lives of 1,300 Israelis and injured 4,562 more, while nearly 200 remain captive, according to OCHA. The conflict has also forced about one million Palestinians in Gaza to flee their homes, more than half of whom are staying in UNRWA facilities across the territory.
A convoy with aid entered Gaza for the first time on October 21 since the outbreak of hostilities on October 7.
Martin Griffiths, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, welcomed aid and said he was confident that this would be the start of a “sustainable effort to provide essential supplies – including food, water, medicine, and fuel – to the people of Gaza, in a safe, dependable, unconditional and unimpeded manner.
“Two weeks since the start of hostilities, the humanitarian situation in Gaza – already precarious – has reached catastrophic levels. It is critical that aid reaches people in need wherever they are across Gaza and at the right scale.
“The people of Gaza have endured decades of suffering. The international community cannot continue to fail them.”
UNRWA, the United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees, says that more than half a million people are staying in crowded shelters in Gaza, especially in the south. They have left their homes because of the war and have nowhere else to go.
The shelters do not have enough food, water, hygiene, and cleaning items, and they are not clean enough. The UNRWA says that this is a health problem, and it makes the people who live there feel more stressed and scared. Some of them have gone back to where they came from, even though it is still dangerous.
The water crisis in Gaza is also affecting the UNRWA shelters, as many of them do not have any water supply at all. The agency says that fuel is urgently needed to operate water pumps and desalination plants, but it is scarce and expensive due to the blockade and the war.
UNRWA Director of Communications Juliette Touma noted during a UN briefing last week that the organization was concerned about shortages of water.
“We are very concerned about the spread of water-borne diseases,” Touma said. The influx of people in shelters and facilities such as hospitals means that the latter have been over-extended to accommodate them while resuming regular operations.
“We call for the siege to be lifted so that UNRWA and other sister and humanitarian agencies can bring in much-needed supplies,” Touma said.
On October 20, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the gate to Gaza (Rafah Crossing) and spoke about the humanitarian crisis in the enclave. He said, “We have a situation where trucks carrying vital supplies are stuck at the border while the people in Gaza are suffering from a lack of water, electricity, food, and medicine. We need to end this deadlock urgently.”
The next day, several trucks entered Gaza with aid, following a previous agreement between the USA, Egypt, and Israel.
Guterres praised the efforts of the Egyptian Red Crescent and other Egyptian entities that are helping the people in Gaza, along with the United Nations. He said, “It’s important that we have consistent support, with a sufficient number of trucks allowed to cross every day.”
A large convoy of humanitarian aid from Egypt is waiting to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing, according to a volunteer from the National Alliance for Civil Development Work. The convoy consists of 120 trucks carrying 1,000 tons of food and meat, 40,000 blankets, 80 tents, 46,000 pieces of clothing, and 290,000 boxes of medicines and medical supplies.
A volunteer, Ahmed Magdy, said that the convoy had been delayed for days and that only limited trucks were allowed to pass. He expressed his disappointment and frustration at the situation, especially after the bombing of Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza and the shortage of medical resources in most of the hospitals in the Strip. He said that the Egyptian civil society organizations are eager to deliver their aid to the people of Gaza, who are suffering from Israeli aggression.
According to the Palestine Red Crescent, 20 trucks of humanitarian aid have arrived in Gaza and will be distributed according to the Emergency Committee’s lists. However, the organization warned that the supplies are not enough to meet the needs of the region and that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza continues.
While IPS was interviewing Hisham Mahna, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza, the Jerusalem Hospital affiliated with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society received a notice of immediate evacuation from the Israeli army and a threat of shelling. More threats continued over the weekend, with Palestinians saying they had received renewed new warnings from Israel’s military to move from north Gaza to the south of the strip.
According to Hisham, the hospital houses more than 400 patients, including critically ill patients and others in the intensive care unit, in addition to 12,000 displaced civilians who have taken refuge in the hospital as a safe place, in addition to the medical staff.
“We appealed to the Israeli authorities at all levels to stop the repeated attacks on hospitals, to highlight the dire humanitarian situation inside the hospital for patients and displaced people, and to avoid a repeat of the Al-Ahli Hospital tragedy,” Mahna told IPS.
Ahmed El-Beriem, a Palestinian journalist and volunteer coordinator at UNRWA shelters in the Gaza Strip, tells IPS that most of the population of Gaza has been displaced to the south, which is what Israel had planned from the beginning of the war to force Gazans to leave through the Egyptian border.
“The tents provided by UN agencies are no longer enough. There are more than half a million displaced people without shelter. As for schools, the classrooms are full to the brim, with most of them reaching a density of 70 people in a room that does not exceed 25 square meters.”
El-Beriem says that the cemeteries in the Gaza Strip are filled to the brim. There is no more room, which forced the municipality to dig mass graves, each of which contains between 100 and 200 dead.
“Since the beginning of the war, the people of Gaza have been living without water or electricity. The water provided by aid organizations is limited, and diseases are widespread in the refugee camps.”
He says, “You can barely breathe clean air. The displaced people are scattered in schools, in gardens, in the courtyards of mosques, and in the corridors of hospitals.
Security has become a rare commodity. People here do not have the luxury of sleeping. You never know when the shelling will come. Israel is firing shells over the heads of civilians day and night. They are shelling hospitals, mosques, churches, residential towers, crossings, and everything.”
On the other side of the border, a field coordinator with the Egyptian Red Crescent, Mohamed Jamal, said they have received hundreds of tons of aid for Gaza at El-Arish Airport in Egypt’s northern Sinai. However, he said they are still waiting for the border to open to deliver the aid. “We are still waiting for any breakthrough in the situation and the opening of the crossing,” Jamal told IPS.
He said the international aid includes medical equipment, medicines, food, blankets, and clothing from various countries and organizations. Jamal said the Egyptian Red Crescent was coordinating with other countries and the Palestinian Red Crescent to assess the needs of the people in Gaza and provide them with the necessary relief supplies.
According to UN Women, the recent outbreak of violence and destruction in Gaza has forced nearly 493,000 women and girls to flee their homes. The violence has also left many women without their male partners, as about 900 women have become widows and heads of households.
Sarah Hendriks, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, ad interim, said: “UN Women urges an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and unrestricted access to humanitarian aid, including food, water, fuel, and health supplies, which are vital for the survival of women and girls in the Gaza Strip.”
The World Food Programme (WFP) has been providing food and cash assistance to 522,000 Palestinians each day since the start of the crisis, even as stocks run dangerously low. Due to the widespread destruction and insecurity, the replenishment of supplies has proven to be difficult, nigh impossible.
The call for an end to the siege has been made more pertinent and urgent after the bombings of a UNRWA school in the Al-Maghazi refugee camp and the Al Ahli Anglican Episcopal Hospital on October 17, resulting in casualties in the hundreds. Guterres condemned the strikes in a statement issued that same day, also emphasizing that under international law, hospitals and medical clinics are protected under international law.
Since the start of the crisis, 26 healthcare facilities have been damaged by the fighting, according to the World Health Organization. Facilities such as hospitals have already been overwhelmed with the patient care they provide during such crises, as well as serving as shelters for displaced peoples.
The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths spoke at the Security Council to call for the involved parties to respect international humanitarian law. He also called for a ceasefire so that humanitarian efforts could step in. Following the hospital bombing on Tuesday, he noted that medical personnel and facilities are protected under international law.
“It’s imperative that the wounded and the sick receive the medical care they need,” he said. “It is imperative that the parties respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, and it is our collective responsibility – we are all involved in this, we are not observers, we are all involved – in using all our influence to ensure that this is the case.”
Some Member States have extended their support to the people of Palestine and the relief effort. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia contributed USD 20 million and USD 2 million, respectively, to UNRWA’s relief funding. Contributions have also come from Jordan, Ireland, and Iceland.
There have also been statements that call out or even condemn the Israeli military forces in their operations against Hamas.
A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the continued attacks and siege of Gaza have demonstrated “daily indications of violations of the law of war and international human rights law.”
Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, has warned that the Palestinians face the “grave danger of mass ethnic cleansing” should the war continue and has stated that Israeli forces’ military operations go “well beyond the limits of international law.”
In the 15-member council, a resolution that would have condemned all violence against civilians in the Hamas-Israel conflict was vetoed by the United States. Russia and Britain, two other permanent members of the Security Council, abstained during the voting process – the rationale being that more time was needed for diplomacy.
IPS UN Bureau Report