Israel’s resumption of air strikes and heavy shelling of Gaza threatens to deepen the strip’s catastrophic humanitarian situation. United Nations children’s agency (Unicef) spokesman James Elder on Friday told reporters in Geneva via video link from Gaza: “Today those in power decided that the killing of children would recommence in Gaza.”
He demanded a lasting ceasefire and said: “It is reckless to think more attacks on the people of Gaza will lead to anything but carnage.”
The pause, which began on November 24th and ended early on Friday after two extensions, had allowed limited supplies of potable water, food, fuel, medical supplies, warm clothing and blankets to enter Gaza. However, United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres had said: “The level of aid remains completely inadequate to meet the huge needs.” Before the war 80 per cent of Gazans subsisted on UN aid. Poverty has been exacerbated by Israel’s 17-year siege and blockade of Gaza after Hamas’s takeover.
When Israel began its attacks on Gaza it told the strip’s northern residents to move to the south for their own safety. Since most have complied the majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants are concentrated in half of the territory of one of the world’s most densely populateded areas. On Friday the Israeli army urged Gazans in the south to squeeze into enclaves that cannot sustain large numbers of people.
An estimated 1.8 million Gazans have become internally displaced by the conflict. Some 1.1 million have crowded into 156 UN refugee agency (Unrwa) shelters and tented encampments. Nearly 200,000 are staying at public schools, hospitals, wedding halls and offices or are hosted by families.
Many Palestinian families are subsisting on one daily meal of pasta, rice or broth provided by soup kitchens. Since flour is in short supply and bakeries have been bombed, bread is limited. As Israel has targeted farms, local fruit, vegetables, and meat are in short supply, and are being sold at double the pre-war price.
Bottled water deliveries by relief convoys are insufficient. Most Gazans depend on jerry cans of polluted water drawn from wells. There is no electricity to power water purification, desalination and sewage disposal, risking an outbreak of cholera.
During the pause several hospitals were able to resume treating some ailing and wounded Gazans but World Health Organisation director Tedros Ghebreyesus said only 15 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are functioning and priority must be given to ensure the system continues to work. “Emergency medical teams and field hospitals can only complement Gaza’s health system, not replace it,” he said.
Due to overcrowding in shelters Ghebreyesus warned of a high risk of infectious disease epidemics. He said more than 111,000 cases of acute respiratory infection, 36,000 cases of diarrhoea in children below five, and 24,000 cases of skin rash had been recorded since the beginning of the war.
Unrwa chief Philippe Lazzarini has warned that if there is fighting desperate Gazans “might wish to flee... beyond the border” into Egypt, which has said it will repel Palestinian refugees.
- Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date