UN warns Gaza blockade could force it to sharply cut relief operations as bombings rise

Author: NAJIB JOBAIN, SAMY MAGDY AND RAVI NESSMAN / AP
Published: Updated:
Israel
A Palestinian stands outside the building destroyed i the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Wednesday, Oct 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees warned Wednesday that without immediate deliveries of fuel it will soon have to sharply cut back relief operations across the Gaza Strip, which has been blockaded and hit by devastating Israeli airstrikes since Hamas militants launched an attack on Israel more than two weeks ago.

The warning came as hospitals in Gaza struggled to treat masses of wounded with dwindling resources, and health officials in the Hamas-ruled territory said the death toll was soaring as Israeli jets continued striking the territory overnight into Wednesday.

The airstrikes killed more than 750 people in Gaza between Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, where Hamas controls the government. The figures did not give a breakdown of how many of those killed were militants. The Associated Press could not independently verify the death tolls cited by Hamas, which says it tallies figures from hospital directors.

The Israeli military said its strikes had killed militants and destroyed tunnels, command centers, weapons storehouses and other military targets, which it has accused Hamas of hiding among Gaza’s civilian population. Gaza-based militants have been launching unrelenting rocket barrages into Israel since the conflict started.

The death toll, following a reported 704 killed the day before, was unprecedented in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even greater loss of life could come when Israel launches an expected ground offensive aimed at crushing Hamas militants.

The U.N. says about 1.4 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are now internally displaced, with almost 600,000 crowded into U.N. shelters.

Gaza’s residents have been running out of food, water and medicine since Israel sealed off the territory following the attack on southern Israel by Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

In recent days, Israel allowed a small number of trucks filled with aid to come over the border with Egypt but barred deliveries of fuel — needed to power hospital generators — to keep it out of Hamas’ hands.

The U.N. said it had managed to deliver some of the aid in recent days to hospitals treating the wounded. But the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, the largest provider of humanitarian services in Gaza, said it was running out of fuel.

Officials said they were forced to reduce their operations as they rationed what little fuel they had.

“Without fuel our trucks cannot go around to further places in the strip for distribution,” said Lily Esposito, a spokesperson for the agency. “We will have to make decisions on what activities we keep or not with little fuel.”

Meanwhile, more than half of Gaza’s primary healthcare facilities, and roughly a third of its hospitals, have stopped functioning, the World Health Organization said.

Overwhelmed hospital staff struggled to triage cases as constant waves of wounded were brought in. The Health Ministry said many wounded are laid on the ground without even simple medical aid and others wait for days for surgeries because there are so many critical cases.

The conflict threatened to spread across the region, as Israeli airstrikes hit Syrian military sites in the south Wednesday, killing eight soldiers and wounding seven, according to Syria’s state-run SANA news agency.

The Israeli military said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, its jets had struck Syrian military infrastructure and mortar systems in response to rocket launches from Syria.

Israel has launched several strikes on Syria in recent days, including strikes that put the Damascus and Aleppo airports out of service, in an apparent attempt to prevent arms shipments from Iran to militant groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Israel has been fighting the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah across the Lebanese border in recent weeks.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah met Wednesday with top Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad officials in their first reported meeting since the war started. Such a meeting could signal coordination between the groups, as Hezbollah officials warned Israel against launching a ground offensive in Gaza.

Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Iran was helping Hamas, with intelligence and by “whipping up incitement against Israel across the world.” He said Iranian proxies were also operating against Israel from Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

The Gaza Health Ministry says more than 6,500 Palestinians have been killed in the war. The figure includes the disputed toll from an explosion at a hospital last week.

The fighting has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel — mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack, according to the Israeli government. Hamas is also holding some 222 people that it captured and brought back to Gaza.

The prime minister of Qatar, which has mediated the release of four of the hostages, said he was hopeful for more breakthroughs.

“The negotiations are still ongoing and at any moment of time, I think that if we will be able to get along between the two parties, I think we will see some breakthroughs hopefully soon,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said.

Tzahi Hanegbi, the head of Israel’s National Security Council, welcomed Qatar’s help in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. Israeli praise for the Gulf emirate, a financial backer of the Gaza Strip, is rare.

Fighting also erupted in the West Bank, which has seen a major spike in violence.

Islamic Jihad militants said they fought with Israeli forces in Jenin overnight. The Palestinian Health Ministry in the West Bank said Israel killed four Palestinians in Jenin, including a 15-year-old, and two others in other towns. That brought the total number of those killed in the occupied West Bank since Oct. 7 to 102.

Across central and south Gaza, where Israel told civilians to take shelter, there were multiple scenes of rescuers pulling the dead and wounded out of large piles of rubble from collapsed buildings. Graphic photos and video shot by the AP showed rescuers unearthing bodies of children from multiple ruins.

A father knelt on the floor of the Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah next to the bodies of three dead children cocooned in bloodied sheets. Later at the nearby morgue, workers prayed over 24 dead wrapped in body bags, several of them the size of small children.

Buildings that collapsed on residents killed dozens at a time in several cases, witnesses said. Two families lost 47 members in a leveled home in Rafah, the Health Ministry said.

In Gaza City, at least 19 people were killed when an airstrike hit the house of the Bahloul family, according to survivors, who said dozens more remained buried. The legs of a dead woman and another person, both still half buried, dangled out of the wreckage where workers dug through the dirt, concrete and rebar.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that the proportionate response to the Oct. 7 attack is “a total destruction” of the militants. “It is not only Israel’s right to destroy Hamas. It’s our duty,” he said.

On Wednesday, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Gilad Erdan, said his country will stop issuing visas to U.N. personnel after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that Hamas’ attack “did not happen in a vacuum.” It was unclear what the action, if followed through with, would mean for U.N. aid personnel working in Gaza and the West Bank.

“It’s time to teach them a lesson,” Erdan told Army Radio, accusing the U.N. chief of justifying a slaughter.

The U.N. chief told the Security Council on Tuesday that “the Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.” Guterres also said “the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

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