WORLD

UN halts all food distribution in Rafah after running out of supplies in the southern Gaza city

May 21, 2024, 12:37 AM | Updated: 5:40 pm

CAIRO (AP) — The United Nations suspended food distribution in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Tuesday due to a lack of supplies and an untenable security situation caused by Israel’s expanding military operation. The U.N. warned that humanitarian operations across the territory were nearing collapse.

A senior United States official said Israel has addressed many of the Biden administration’s concerns about a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah aimed at rooting out Hamas fighters there. U.S. President Joe Biden had previously opposed a total military assault on a city filled with displaced civilians if plans did not prioritize the safety of innocent Palestinians. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

The official said the administration stopped short of greenlighting the Israeli invasion plan, but said Israeli officials’ changes to the planning suggested they were taking the American administration’s concerns seriously.

Over the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have fled Rafah in a chaotic exodus, seeking shelter in new tent camps or crowding into areas already devastated by previous Israeli offensives. Some 400,000 people are believed to still be in Rafah after around 900,000 rushed to escape, according to COGAT, the Israeli military office in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs.

Getting aid to displaced civilians has been hampered by closed and chaotic land crossings, as well as problems plaguing the U.S. military’s new floating pier meant to provide an alternative sea route for aid into Gaza. Over the weekend, hungry Palestinians took aid from a U.N. vehicle convoy coming from the pier, and the U.N. said since then it had been unable to receive trucks there.

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters in Washington that for the past few days, forward movement of aid from the pier was paused but it resumed Tuesday. There was no confirmation from the U.N.

The U.N.’s World Food Program said it was running out of food for central Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people are now living.

“Humanitarian operations in Gaza are near collapse,” said Abeer Etefa, a WFP spokesperson. If food and other supplies don’t resume entering Gaza “in massive quantities, famine-like conditions will spread,” she said.

The warning came as Israel seeks to contain the international fallout from a request at the world’s top war crimes court for arrest warrants targeting both Israeli and Hamas leaders. The move garnered support from three European countries, including Israel’s key ally France.

“Use of starvation as a method of warfare” was among the accusations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant by the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court — charges they and other Israeli officials angrily deny. The prosecutor accused three Hamas leaders of war crimes over killings of civilians in the group’s Oct. 7 attack.

The U.N says some 1.1 million people in Gaza — nearly half the population — face catastrophic levels of hunger and that the territory is on the brink of famine. Throughout the war, Rafah has been filled with scenes of hungry children holding out pots and plastic containers at makeshift soup kitchens, with many families reduced to eating only one meal a day.

The humanitarian crisis deepened after Israeli forces pushed into Rafah on May 6. Tanks and troops seized the vital Rafah crossing into Egypt, and it’s been closed ever since. After May 10, only about three dozen trucks made it into Gaza via the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel because fighting made it dangerous for aid workers to reach it, the U.N. says.

Israel insists it puts no restriction on the number of trucks entering Gaza. COGAT said 450 trucks entered Tuesday from its side to Kerem Shalom and a small crossing in northern Gaza. It said more than 650 trucks are waiting on the Gaza side of Kerem Shalom to be retrieved, blaming “lack of logistical capabilities and manpower gaps” among aid groups.

For months, the U.N. has warned that an Israeli assault on Rafah could wreck the effort to get food, medicine and other supplies to Palestinians across Gaza.

Asked about the ramifications of suspending aid, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said simply: “People don’t eat.”

Etefa said the WFP was still passing out hot meals and “limited distributions” of reduced food packages in central Gaza, but “food parcel stocks will run out within days,” she said.

The U.S. touted the $320 million pier project as a route for accelerated deliveries. The first 10 trucks rolled off a ship onto the pier on Friday and were taken to a WFP warehouse. However, a second convoy on Saturday was met by Palestinian crowds who removed all the food from 11 trucks, and only five truckloads made it to the warehouse, Etefa said.

No further deliveries came from the pier Sunday or Monday, Etefa said.

“The responsibility of ensuring aid reaches those in need does not end at the crossings and other points of entry into Gaza — it extends throughout Gaza itself,” she said.

At the same time, battles have escalated in northern Gaza as Israeli troops conduct operations against Hamas fighters, who the military says regrouped in areas already captured in offensives months ago.

One of the main hospitals still operating in the north, Kamal Adwan, was forced to evacuate after it was “targeted” by Israeli troops, the Gaza Health Ministry said. Around 150 staff and dozens of patients fled the facility, including intensive care patients and infants in incubators “under fire from shelling,” it said. The Israeli military did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

The nearby Awda hospital has been surrounded by troops the past three days, and an artillery shell hit its fifth floor, the hospital administration said Tuesday. A day earlier, the international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said Awda had run out of drinking water.

The war between began on Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants crossed into Israel and killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 hostage. ICC prosecutor Karim Khan accused Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh of crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder and sexual violence.

Israel responded to the Oct. 7 with an offensive that has laid waste to Gaza and killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between noncombatants and fighters in its count.

Monday’s call by Khan for arrest warrants deepens Israel’s global isolation at a time when it is facing growing criticism from even its closest allies over the war. France, Belgium, and Slovenia each said they backed Khan’s decision.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz headed to France on Tuesday in response, urging it to “declare loud and clear” that the request for warrants against Netanyahu and Gallant “is unacceptable to you and to the French government.”

His meetings there could set the tone for how countries navigate the warrants — if they are eventually issued — and whether they could pose a threat to Israeli leaders. A panel of three ICC judges will decide whether to issue the arrest warrants and allow a case to proceed. The judges typically take two months to make such decisions.

Israel still has the support of its top ally, the United States, as well as other Western countries that spoke out against the decision. But if the warrants are issued, they could complicate international travel for Netanyahu and his defense minister, even if they do not face any immediate risk of prosecution because Israel itself is not a member of the court.

___

Goldenberg reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press journalists Majdi Mohammed in the Jenin refugee camp, West Bank, Jack Jeffery in Jerusalem, Aamer Madhani in Washington, John Leicester in Paris, and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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