UN warns Gaza blockade could force sharp cuts in aid operation as bombings rise

Palestinians look at destruction in Rafah caused by the Israeli bombardment (Hatem Ali/AP)
Palestinians look at destruction in Rafah caused by the Israeli bombardment (Hatem Ali/AP)

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has warned that without immediate deliveries of fuel it will soon have to sharply cut back relief operations across the Gaza Strip.

The territory has been blockaded and hit by devastating Israeli air strikes since Hamas militants launched an attack on Israel more than two weeks ago.

Wednesday’s 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.

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A Palestinian man stands outside a building in Rafah destroyed in Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday (Hatem Ali/AP)

The Israeli military said its strikes had killed militants and destroyed tunnels, command centres, 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 Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said the air strikes killed at least 704 people between Monday and Tuesday, mostly women and children.

The Associated Press could not independently verify the death tolls cited by Hamas, which says it tallies figures from hospital directors.

The death toll is 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.

In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters the US could not verify the one-day death toll.

“The Ministry of Health is run by Hamas, and I think that all needs to be factored into anything that they put out publicly,” he said.

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Palestinians carry the bodies of militants killed in an Israeli air strike on the refugee camp in Jenin, West Bank, during their funeral (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Israel said on Tuesday that it had launched 400 air strikes over the past day, an increase from the 320 strikes the day before.

The UN says about 1.4 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are now internally displaced, with almost 600,000 crowded into UN 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 has sworn to destroy Israel.

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

The UN said it has managed to deliver some of the aid in recent days to hospitals treating the wounded, but the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, the largest provider of humanitarian services in Gaza, said it will run out of fuel by Wednesday night.

Officials said they have been 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 agency spokeswoman Lily Esposito. “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 Organisation said.

Overwhelmed hospital staff struggle to triage cases as constant waves of wounded are taken in.

The Health Ministry said many casualties are laid on the ground without even simple medical aid and others wait for days for surgery because there are so many critical cases.

The ministry says more than 5,700 Palestinians have been killed in the war, including some 2,300 children. 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 murdered during the initial Hamas attack, according to the Israeli government. Hamas is also holding some 222 people that it captured and took back to Gaza.

The conflict threatened to spread across the region as Israeli air strikes hit Syrian military sites in the south on 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, that 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 top Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad officials on Wednesday in their first reported meeting since the war started.

Such a meeting could signal co-ordination between the groups, as Hezbollah officials warned Israel against launching a ground offensive in Gaza.

Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Iran is helping Hamas, with intelligence and by “whipping up incitement against Israel across the world”.

He said Iranian proxies are also operating against Israel from Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

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.

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Palestinians look at destruction in Rafah caused by the Israeli bombardment (Hatem Ali/AP)

The Palestinian Health Ministry in the West Bank said Israel killed three Palestinians in Jenin and two other in other towns, taking the total number of those killed in the occupied West Bank since October 7 to 101.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that the proportionate response to the October 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.

The Israeli military said it thwarted an assault by a group of Hamas underwater divers who tried to infiltrate Israel on a beach just north of Gaza.

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.

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