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Expanding Israeli assault grinds Gaza aid efforts to a halt

‘We just have nothing. We got nothing. The pause got us nothing.’

Four individuals are sitting on the curb next to rubble left by an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis on 6 December 2023. Ahmed Zakot/Reuters
Palestinians in the rubble left by an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis on 6 December 2023.

With Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip resuming at full force, last week’s pause in hostilities is already a distant memory for residents of the enclave, who are wondering whether it served any real humanitarian purpose at all amid the utter devastation caused by Israel’s expanding military offensive.

“We were able to secure a number of blankets during the humanitarian pause. But, seriously, how good is that?” Wafaa al-Gherabli, 60, told The New Humanitarian after the truce ended.

Al-Gherbali fled her home in al-Shati refugee camp in the north of Gaza, along with 22 members of her family, weeks into Israel’s bombardment and siege of the enclave, which began on 7 October. She is now staying in a shelter in the centre of Khan Younis, a city in the south. “We just have nothing. We got nothing. The pause got us nothing,” she said.

Since the end of the week-long truce on 1 December, the Israeli military has expanded its bombardment and ground invasion in central and southern Gaza after previously focusing on the north. At least 1,207 people were killed in Gaza between 1 and 5 December, around 70% of them women and children, according to the health ministry in the enclave.

Khan Younis, where al-Gherbali had taken shelter, has been hit particularly hard. The city, home to about 381,000 people before the war, is hosting around 245,000 displaced people, and Israeli troops are pushing towards the city’s centre amid heavy fighting across the enclave. People – including those already displaced – are reportedly attempting to flee further south to the city of Rafah.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths warned that the situation is “apocalyptic” since Israel resumed its military activity, and that Israel’s expansion of its ground offensive in the south has effectively made it impossible for aid operations to continue, or to have any meaningful impact.

“It isn’t really a statistically significant operation any more,” Griffiths told the Guardian newspaper in an interview published on 5 December. “It’s a bit of a patch on a wound and it doesn’t do the job, and it would be an illusion for the world to think that the people in Gaza can be helped by the humanitarian operation under these conditions.”

During the 24 November to 1 December pause, an average of 170 trucks per day carrying humanitarian supplies and much-needed fuel to power essential services and aid operations entered Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. This was up from around 50 per day between 21 October – when Israel began allowing in limited aid deliveries – and the start of the truce.

Israel has imposed a “complete siege” on Gaza since 9 October, cutting off electricity and water, and blocking the entry of food, fuel, medical supplies, and other items, aside from the trickle of aid allowed. The UN has pleaded with Israel to open the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Gaza and Israel – the main commercial border crossing into the enclave – to allow for the delivery of more humanitarian aid, but Israel has refused.

Prior to 7 October, around 500 trucks carrying aid and commercial goods would enter Gaza every day, and that was before the widespread destruction of essential services, mass displacement, death, injuries, and total economic disruption caused by Israel’s military campaign and siege during the past two months, according to Hisham Adwan, spokesperson for the General Authority for Crossings and Borders in the Gaza Strip, which is governed by the Palestinian political and militant group Hamas.

Israel’s bombardment, siege, and ground invasion of Gaza began after Hamas launched an attack into Israel on 7 October, which left around 1,200 people dead, the majority of them civilians, according to Israeli authorities. Hamas also took around 240 hostages back to Gaza. 

The pause in hostilities was negotiated to allow for the release of hostages and increased aid access in exchange for the release of some of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. During the truce, Hamas released 110 hostages and Israel released 240 Palestinian prisoners, all of them women, children, and teenagers.

Since 7 October, at least 16,200 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, around 70% of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Thousands more are thought to be trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings. Out of the around 2.3 million people who live in the coastal enclave, 1.9 million have been forced from their homes. Many are being displaced again as Israel expands its military campaign in the south, squeezing residents into smaller and smaller pockets of remaining territory.

UN experts have warned that the Palestinian people are facing a “grave risk of genocide”. The UN’s rights chief said on 6 December that there’s a “heightened risk of atrocity crimes” and that Palestinians in Gaza are being “collectively punished” for Hamas’ attack on Israel.

“We used to be able to find meat, rice, and other food items to make meals for thousands of displaced people. We can no longer offer that because these items are simply not available anymore.”

Mohamed Qadous, the Gaza-based head of international charity Rahma Worldwide

Shortages of essential items – including medical supplies, food, clothing, mattresses, and blankets – are so widespread and severe that “the pause failed to even address them superficially”, according to Mohamed Qadous, the Gaza-based head of the Palestine office of the international charity Rahma Worldwide who has also been displaced by the conflict.

“The local markets were completely dried out, and the supplies that came were all given away instantly,” Qadous told The New Humanitarian by phone. “We used to be able to find meat, rice, and other food items to make meals for thousands of displaced people. We can no longer offer that because these items are simply not available anymore. Aid needs to come in constantly, through all border crossings possible, and not just Rafah.”

“At this point of the war, there is not a single person in Gaza who is self-sufficient,” said Qadous. “They’re all in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. They’re all lacking essentials. The pause seemingly offered a breakthrough, but the impact of the war quickly consumed the little that came through.”

‘They will be zones of death’

In Khan Younis, there’s now a sense that the end of the truce has ushered in an even more brutal phase of Israel’s assault, and that the worst is yet to come. 

The pause had offered a slight respite to residents of Gaza, many of whom had been unable to find food, clean water, medicines, safety, or any sense of normalcy for the past two months. Thousands lined up in long queues for hours to get limited amounts of cooking gas, and meagre portions of flour determined by family size, or they crowded and shoved to get food and drinking water handed out by the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and other international and local NGOs.

Since Israel resumed its ground invasion and bombardment on 1 December, however, aid distribution has essentially ground to a halt except for in the southernmost governorate of Rafah, according to OCHA.

According to The New Humanitarian’s reporter, a number of warehouses holding humanitarian supplies are now inaccessible to aid groups after Israel seized control of the areas of Gaza where they are located, including a Palestinian Red Crescent warehouse and a warehouse belonging to a local relief organisation in the west of Khan Younis. Desperate people in Khan Younis also broke into several aid warehouses after the truce ended to try to secure supplies for themselves and their families, according to eyewitnesses.

On 4 December, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the Israeli military ordered the UN agency to remove medical supplies from one of its warehouses in southern Gaza within 24 hours before the facility was put “beyond use” by Israel’s ground invasion. Israel has denied that it ordered the WHO to remove supplies from the facility.

 

As the sound of Israeli bombing was drawing nearer to the shelter where al-Gherabli, the woman from al-Shati camp, was staying, she said she was in a crippling state of despair. Families around her are scrambling to try to find safe places to go to, but al-Gherabli didn’t know where she could go.

During the first weeks of its military campaign, Israel ordered 1.1 million people in the north of Gaza to move south for their “own safety”. In recent days, it has ordered people in various locations in the south – including areas around Khan Younis and the city's outskirts – to evacuate. The Israeli military has published an online map – inaccessible to many due to widespread internet outages in Gaza – to purportedly facilitate the evacuation process of civilians to alleged safe zones. 

Speaking of the evacuation map and safe zones, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder, who is in Gaza, told CNN in an interview: “It’s a false narrative… When they quite often get to these places, they are bombed. It's a very dangerous narrative that’s being shared. They are not safe zones; they will be zones of death.”

The UN has reiterated multiple times that nowhere in Gaza is safe. 

In addition to the intensified bombardment and Israeli soldiers closing in, temperatures have dropped, and rain – once celebrated and welcomed by Gaza’s largely agrarian society – has arrived in the war-battered enclave. 

“Even the weather is not on our side. We’re struggling to keep warm, and the children are suffering,” al-Gherabli said, wrapping two of her grandchildren into a tight embrace to try to warm them up. Their light clothing had been soaked by rain in the puddle-covered playground of the school where the family is sheltering.

‘The world must put an end to this’

With over 80% of Gaza’s population displaced from their homes, shelters in the south – where most have fled – are severely overcrowded. Aid workers in the enclave are continuing to warn of the increasing spread of infections and the possibility for the outbreak of dangerous and deadly diseases such as cholera and typhoid. 

“Severe food insecurity and thousands’ inability to access clean water, in addition to scores of killed people decaying beneath the rubble, is adding to the grim situation in Gaza,” Ra’ed al-Nims, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza, told The New Humanitarian. 

“Our staff has been reporting increasing numbers of respiratory and skin infections,” al-Nims added. “The world must put an end to this.”

OCHA reported significant increases in some communicable diseases in the overcrowded UNRWA shelters in the south, including diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, skin infections and hygiene-related conditions like lice, as well as an emerging outbreaks of hepatitis A.

“The destruction of roads and the devastation across the wrecked enclave makes distribution a real challenge, adding to our inability to reach everyone.”

Ra’ed al-Nims, spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza

Medical staff, who were already working under extremely difficult conditions, are now operating with rapidly depleting supplies, al-Nims said. In the absence of sterilisation and anaesthesia – not to mention the severe shortage in fuel that has almost completely crippled Gaza’s medical facilities – they are unable to perform critical procedures.

The limited amount of humanitarian supplies in the enclave is leading to rising frustration among increasingly desperate residents.

For example, Eyad Mohamed, 51, said he wasn’t able to get hold of any basic supplies to help provide for his family of 15, including young grandchildren, during the pause.

Mohamed is still living in his home, despite the damage it suffered from shelling. He has seen aid being distributed, but he wasn’t able to figure out where to get supplies for his family. 

“I understand that larger families need bigger shares of crucial supplies, but what I am asking for is equality in distribution of these items, fairly and professionally,” he said, clearly angry. 

The Palestinian Red Crescent has received the bulk of the aid that has entered through the Rafah border crossing, which it then delivered to UN agencies, international NGOs, and the Ministry of Social Development in Gaza. 

Distributing aid has been challenging because demand is much higher than the supplies available, so, inevitably, many people end up not getting what they need, according to al-Nims. “The destruction of roads and the devastation across the wrecked enclave makes distribution a real challenge, adding to our inability to reach everyone,” he added.

As Israel’s ground invasion continues to expand, the prospect of even limited aid efforts being able to continue is becoming increasingly slim. 

This article has been published in collaboration with Egab. Edited by Dahlia Kholaif and Eric Reidy.

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