Gaza residents face imminent risk of starvation, UN warns

The UN was forced to suspend delivery of aid to Gaza on Friday thanks to shortages of fuel – as it warns citizens face an imminent risk of starvation without urgently needed food and water supplies.

Aid agencies say a humanitarian crisis for the 2.3 million residents of Gaza is heading for a new, more dire phase as the war enters its seventh week. The UN said its trucks could not move, and it could not coordinate deliveries thanks to a communications blackout. Palestinian network operators said they could no longer power the phone and internet systems, also due to a lack of fuel. Such shortages have essentially shut down water treatment and sewage systems, leading health authorities to warn about the spread of infectious diseases.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, won’t be able to bring in aid as long as the communications disruption continues, according to spokesperson Juliette Touma. "An extended blackout means an extended suspension of our humanitarian operations in the Gaza Strip," she said.

Cindy McCain, director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), warned that supplies of food and water are “practically non-existent”, while “only a fraction” of what is desperately needed is crossing into Gaza borders during Israel’s siege.

“With winter fast approaching, unsafe and overcrowded shelters, and the lack of clean water, civilians are facing the immediate possibility of starvation,” she said in a statement. “There is no way to meet current hunger needs with one operational border crossing. The only hope is opening another, safe passage for humanitarian access to bring life-saving food into Gaza.”

Israel imposed a strict blockade on all goods entering Gaza when it launched a military campaign in response to the Hamas attack inside Israel on 7 October, in which 1,200 people were killed and around 240 were taken hostage. Israel has also been bombarding Gaza from the air, while it has ramped up ground operations in recent weeks that are centred around northern Gaza, particularly Gaza City. Officials in the Hamas-run territory say 12,000 people have died inside Gaza, including 5,000 children.

On Friday, after barring the entry of fuel since the start of its war against Hamas, bar a small amount earlier this week, Israel’s war cabinet announced it would allow up to two fuel trucks per day into Gaza for “minimal” support for water, sewerage and sanitary systems.

Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said at a news conference that the fuel would also be for Gaza’s communications system. He said the aim is to prevent the spread of disease without disrupting Israel’s ability to continue its war against Hamas. The decision is said to have come after a request from the US administration of President Joe Biden.

A US State Department official, offering more details to Reuters, said Israel had committed to allowing in 120,000 litres (31,700 gallons) of fuel every 48 hours for UNRWA’s trucks and other needs like desalinisation of water, sewage pumping, bakeries and hospitals in the south of Gaza. An additional 20,000 litres every two days would be allowed in to power generators of telecoms company Paltel, the official said.

The agreement to deliver the fuel drew strong opposition from some members of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition.

The amount is well below what the UN says it needs to conduct lifesaving functions for hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza, including fuelling water systems, hospitals, bakeries and its trucks delivering aid.

Of the 1,129 aid trucks that entered Gaza since the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt last month, only 447 carried food, according to the WFP.

That pace “remains woefully inadequate,” with only enough supplies to support 7 per cent of Gaza residents’ minimum needs, the agency said.

“The amount of aid we’re getting into Gaza right now is not meeting the need, not even by a long shot,” Tom White of UNRWA told BBC News. “This is now being compounded by the fact that we don’t have fuel to aid our operation, let alone provide basic services to the whole population.”

The WFP also announced this week the closure of the only remaining bakery that was operating in partnership with the agency, as fuel shortages upend critically needed bread production across Gaza’s 130 bakeries.

“The collapse of food supply chains is a catastrophic turning point in an already dire situation, where people have been stripped of basic necessities,” according to a statement from Samer Abdeljaber with the WFP. “Without access to fuel, our ability to provide bread or transport food to those in need has been severely compromised, essentially bringing life in Gaza to a standstill. People are going hungry.”

Of the 1,129 aid trucks that entered Gaza since the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt last month, only 447 carried food, according to the WFP (AFP/Getty)
Of the 1,129 aid trucks that entered Gaza since the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt last month, only 447 carried food, according to the WFP (AFP/Getty)

International focus has been on Gaza’s largest hospital, al-Shifa, in recent days as the compound in Gaza City was raided by Israeli forces. The hospital contains hundreds of patients and even more displaced people. Israel says that Hamas operates both a command centre and a network of tunnels under the hospital. Hospital officials and Hamas deny this. The Israeli military has said its troops have found a vehicle with a large number of weapons and an underground structure it called a Hamas tunnel shaft.

Israel says it also found the bodies of two hostages taken into Gaza during the Hamas attack – both near al-Shifa. The military said that 65-year-old Yehudit Weiss was discovered in a house near the hospital complex in Gaza City, adding that her family had been informed, and her body would be returned to Israel. The Israeli military said on Friday morning that it had also recovered the body of 19-year-old Israeli corporal Noa Marciano from “a structure adjacent to the Shifa Hospital”. Corporal Marciano’s death was confirmed earlier this week.

The funeral for Corporal Marciano was held on Friday in the central Israeli city of Modi’in. “Today we’re asking for your forgiveness ... You protected us, but we failed to protect you,” her weeping mother said. “You are resting now, but we will not stop. We won’t forget or forgive.”

Fears are now growing for people crowded into the south of the Gaza Strip, as Israel’s military appears to be preparing to step up operations beyond northern areas.UN agencies have also criticised Israel’s calls for Gaza civilians to evacuate to so-called safe zones in southern Gaza.

A statement signed by more than a dozen humanitarian chiefs at the United Nations, including Ms McCain, World Health Organisation director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Unicef’s Catherine Russell, rejected calls for “safe zones” declared by only one side of the conflict, “unless fundamental conditions are in place to ensure safety and other essential needs are met and a mechanism is in place to supervise its implementation”.

“Under the prevalent conditions, proposals to unilaterally create ‘safe zones’ in Gaza risk creating harm for civilians, including large-scale loss of life, and must be rejected,” they wrote on Thursday.

Concentrating civilians in such zones “can raise the risk of attack and additional harm,” they added. “No ‘safe zone’ is truly safe when it is declared unilaterally or enforced by the presence of armed forces.”

Airstrikes continue in southern Gaza, where most of the territory’s population is now sheltering. The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Herzl Halevi, said on Thursday that Israel was “close to dismantling the military system" that was in the north. “More and more regions” will be targeted to eliminate Hamas, he said.