‘On death’s waiting list’

Dina Ezzat and Mohamed Abu Shaar, Tuesday 17 Oct 2023

As convoys of Gaza residents move southward to avoid massive Israeli shelling and threats of indiscriminate bombing, the world is failing to reach out with humanitarian aid, report Dina Ezzat and Mohamed Abu Shaar

 On death s waiting list


Palestinians in Gaza have been running for their lives with nowhere safe to go for about a week since Israel threatened the residents of the northern part of the Strip, telling them to move south or die.

According to sources on the ground who spoke from the already troubled, overpopulated, and impoverished Gaza Strip, at least 50 per cent of an estimated one million plus citizens of the northern part of the Strip have been on the move in the hope of escaping Israel’s brutal aerial retaliation operation to avenge the unprecedentedly strong attack the Islamic resistance movement Hamas conducted on 7 October.

While Israel was receiving votes of confidence for its brutal operation from leading world capitals, thousands of Palestinian houses were being shelled and hundreds of people were being buried under the rubble.

According to Palestinian records, at least 55 families were killed during the first three days of the Israeli shelling. Hundreds more are thought to be under the rubble, either dead or alive and unlikely to survive.

Rescue teams that operate in the north of the Gaza Strip have been saying that it is becoming more and more difficult for rescue workers to cope with the massive volume of work that they are faced with even when they receive messages from individuals reporting family members under the rubble.

Bashar Mourad, executive director of the Palestinian Red Crescent, said that “all of Gaza, not just the north, is a complete nightmare.”

“People are being shelled by Israeli bombing from the north to the south of Gaza. No one is being spared, no one at all,” he said in a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly from the Strip.

Mazen, a Palestinian who spoke on a bad Internet connection from the southern part of the Gaza Strip, said that “there has not been a single night since the Israeli aggression started when his children “did not wake up screaming because of the noise caused by the shelling.”

In his early 40s and a teacher, he said that he can see no end in sight anytime soon for the unfolding nightmare.

He is convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will not stop before killing double or triple or more Palestinians than the number of Israelis who died as a result of the Al-Aqsa Flood,” a reference to the 7 October Hamas operation.

According to Israeli figures, over 1,400 Israelis have died, some immediately and some in hospital, as a result of the resistance operation that Hamas launched on 7 October. According to Palestinian figures, more than 3,500 Palestinians have died since the start of Israel’s Operation Iron Swords in Gaza.

“I am so depressed. It is horrible. I barely move around the house, and every morning I wake up surprised that I am still alive and that my family is still here. I look at my children, and I wonder if it is just a matter of time before I lose them or they lose me, but my wife says it is best if we all die together given that we are all on death’s waiting list,” Mazen said, before he broke down in tears and ended the call abruptly.

Speaking from the middle of Gaza, on a bad telephone line, Marwan said that the fear of death had ceased to be “an occasional thought that one has always lived with.” In his early 20s, Marwan said that he does not recall “even a single day when life [in Gaza] was not shrouded with the fear of death.”

He recalls “the recent wars” on Gaza that have taken place since 2012. “But this time is different. This time is really different,” he said.

Marwan has often woken up in the morning with a heavy heart to cautiously open the window and see families arriving in his city either to find refuge or just to stop. “Some people are in vans; others are in mini trucks with rugs, mattresses, and pillows. Everyone looks tired and so lost and defeated,” he said.

On Monday in the late afternoon when he spoke from Gaza on a poor Internet connection, Marwan said that earlier in the day he had heard a woman crying because her husband had just dropped dead in the middle of the march south.

“She was there with her children and some other family members, and the children were in a total state of shock. But who was there to comfort her? Everyone is devastated,” he added.


MEDICAL SUPPLIES: Palestinian medical teams in Gaza said this week that they had to attend to individuals who were hurt in the Israeli shelling as they tried to escape from the north to the south of the Strip.

According to Mourad, “there is no real safe haven in Gaza. People are on the run with nowhere safe to go to.” He said that the hospitals have ceased to be a safe place even for the wounded.

“We are not just short on medical equipment, medicines, and medical teams; worst of all, we are short on fuel, and without fuel we would be completely lost because how else are we going to operate these hospitals,” he asked.

In a statement this week, Palestinian Minister of Health Mai Al-Kaila warned that if Israel continues to deprive Gaza of fuel, it is only a matter of time before the hospitals of the Strip are turned into open morgues.

Mourad said that it cannot be expected for the fuel left for the use of hospitals in Gaza to last for more than just a few days. “Things are already terrible. The hospitals are unable to put up with the endless number of injuries, some of which are really bad, that keep coming to the hospitals every single day,” he said.

“I am talking about hundreds of cases that have been rushed to the hospitals every day since Israel started its attack on us,” he added.

Already, he noted, Palestinians with critical health conditions have been deprived of adequate or even basic healthcare. These patients are also possible victims of the Israeli aggression. “We are trying our best, but honestly for as long as the world is unable to get basic relief to us, especially fuel, then we are just doomed,” he said.

Over the past week, UN organisations have spoken up against the increasingly harsh conditions that Palestinians have been living under in Gaza, not just due to the Israeli bombing but also due to the order issued on 12 October by the Israeli army for people in north Gaza to move south.

Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General Stephane Dujarric said on 13 October that it was impossible without a devastating humanitarian cost to expect the population of north Gaza to move south. He added that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been in constant calls with Israeli officials to “urge” them to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Another alarm bell has been rung by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This has appealed to Israel to reverse the relocation order its army has issued. The order to expel over one million people amounts to “a death sentence” for many, it said, adding that particularly hospital patients that cannot be transferred from the north to the south of Gaza are desperately affected.

“This is insane. How are we supposed to be taking people from the ICU and moving them from the north to the south of the Strip? It is absolutely mad,” Mourad said.

The loudest alarm message came from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees, however. Philippe Lazzarini, the UNRWA commissioner-general, said this week that “Gaza is being strangled.”

He added that “it seems that the world has lost its humanity.”

With the situation getting worse by the day, UNRWA warned that the situation in Gaza is fast becoming “a hell hole”. It warned that the situation is on the brink of collapse.

After the evacuation order in the north of Gaza, UNRWA had to evacuate personnel, both international and local, to the south. This meant that its schools, which had been turned into refugee camps in the north of Gaza, were no longer within its operations.

Those schools-turned-refugee-camps are estimated to have housed close to half a million people. By Monday, about three days after the UNRWA’s forced exit from the north of the Strip, some Palestinian families were still in the schools but with no supplies left.

“It is true that some people are not willing to leave the north. They believe that all of Gaza is being turned into hell by Israel and that death is coming round the corner,” Mourad said.

However, a considerable segment of those who had gone to the UNRWA schools for refuge escorted the UNRWA convoy as it headed south to the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing. Many of those who joined the convoy ended up with the UNRWA staff at some logistics base or warehouse for the dwindling supplies that the organisation can make available.

It was after the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 that UN Security Council Resolution 302 allowed for the establishment of the UNRWA to provide relief and assistance programmes for Palestinian refugees. Operations effectively started in 1950.

Over the years, UNRWA has often been short on budgets to provide for its programmes and aid to Palestinians. However, today, according to refugees who had already been in the UNRWA Refugee Camp in Rafah, everything is becoming more and more difficult due to the drop in the availability of supplies.

Israel has so far refused to allow any relief material or supplies to get into Gaza. All promises that it would commit to a few hours of humanitarian ceasefire to allow for relief material to get into Gaza were not fulfilled.

According to a Cairo-based European diplomat, “the Israelis have promised the Americans more than once that they would allow for basic humanitarian material to get inside Gaza.” However, the Israeli authorities have not honoured this promise despite “repeated appeals not just from the Americans but also from” several European capitals, he said.

“We have been telling them that the situation is becoming intolerable and that what is happening violates international humanitarian law, but the Israeli government is obsessed with revenge,” the diplomat said.

“This is not revenge. This is a war crime in every sense of the word. Israel is deliberately depriving over two million people of clean water, food, and medicine, and it is forcing over a million people, including women, children, the elderly, and ill people to travel for over 30 km under horrible conditions and shelling,” Mourad stated.

“If things continue this way, then it will be hard to predict the death toll, not just as a result of the shelling but also of illness and a lack of basic medical care,” he added.


ISRAELI ATTACKS: In a rare public statement this week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the attack carried out by Hamas against Israel does not justify the nature of the attacks that Israel has been carrying out against Gaza.

While qualifying the Hamas attack as “horrific”, the ICRC statement said that “the instructions issued by the Israeli authorities for the population of Gaza city to immediately leave their homes, coupled with the complete siege explicitly denying them food, water, and electricity, are not compatible with international humanitarian law.”

It said that it is possible to provide Gaza with “life-saving relief if pauses in the fighting can be agreed.”

Tons of relief material have been piling up on the Egyptian side of the Rafah Crossing awaiting Israeli approval to get into Gaza. In addition to the material allocated by the Egyptian authorities, several other countries have been dispatching aid.

Egyptian sources say that Cairo has been pressing everyone, including Israel, to move fast to allow for at least the partial entry of relief material. But by the end of Monday, Israel had not made any positive response. Instead, for the fourth time in a row, it hit the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing, the only exit that Palestinians in Gaza have out of the Strip that is not under Israeli control.

“We are hoping that we will at least be able to get some of the hundreds of critical injuries and critical cases that cannot be attended to in our hospitals to the Egyptian side of the border to allow them to access proper medical care in Egyptian hospitals,” Mourad said.

“We are in close coordination with the Egyptian Red Crescent, and they are really willing to help. But without securing at least a brief humanitarian ceasefire, how are we going to be able to get the injured through the border,” he asked.

According to Mourad, the families of people with serious injuries and illnesses are devastated with grief as they see the chances to rescue their loved ones being undermined by Israeli intransigence and by the failure of the world to act.

Megahed Al-Namrouti, a psychotherapist who is attending to Palestinian refugees forced to move from the north to the south of the Gaza Strip, said that the psychological damage Palestinians in Gaza have to deal with is so deep that it is going beyond the traumatic.

“It is a really very worrying situation. These cases of psychological instability are really worrying,” he stated.

Meanwhile, Mourad warns that things could get much worse — not just as food and medical supplies continue to decline or as more and more people in the entire Gaza population become more dependent on mostly polluted underground water.

Humanitarian organisations working in Gaza have been echoing concerns over possible outbreaks of disease due to the lack of clean water in a way that has significantly undermined the chances of basic hygiene requirements to be observed.

These organisations have been appealing to the world capitals to demand that Israel at least agree to the entry of fuel for desalination capacities to be operated. However, Israel has been shrugging off this demand.

For people like Mazen and Marwan, all such appeals and statements count for nothing because they don’t change the situation on the ground. These appeals, they said, cannot fix the horrible situation the entire population of Gaza is living under today.

Nor can these appeals, Mazen and Marwan argued, stop Netanyahu if he decides to start the ground operation that he says Israel is going to conduct.

UNRWA’s Director for External Relations and Communications Tamara Alrifai voices deep worries about the possible humanitarian implications of an Israeli ground operation against Gaza. “It will be a humanitarian disaster. We don’t have what it takes to cope with such a situation,” Alrifai told the Weekly.

Since the beginning of the Israeli attack on Gaza, Alrifai has been stressing the need for UNRWA to be allowed to keep “a humanitarian space where it is able to operate safely” to extend help to those who need it.

Speaking from the Amman-based UNRWA offices on the third day of the Israeli war on Gaza, Alrifai said that “we absolutely need to help those people. We are aware of the immense pressure put on hospitals and the ability to deliver food, clean water, fuel, and other kinds of assistance, including psychological assistance, to people who are traumatised by the severity of the bombing.”

On day 10 of the war, Alrifai told the Weekly that the situation was getting tougher by the hour, not just by the day, and that if Israel keeps Gaza under the current complete control, this will not permit any relief material to get into the Strip, challenging UNRWA even more.

Add to this an Israeli ground attack, Alrifai put it unequivocally, “and we will not be able to handle it.”

In New York, the UN Security Council has been failing to demand that Israel end its siege on Gaza to allow for humanitarian aid to get in. On Monday, members of the council were considering two draft resolutions. Either could lead to the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. A Russian draft resolution, which called for a humanitarian ceasefire, was not approved by the council. A Brazilian draft resolution, which calls for humanitarian pauses to allow aid access, is still under consideration.

An Arab diplomatic source who spoke from New York on condition of anonymity said that at this point any resolution that might allow even for a limited or partial entry of aid would be appreciated. “The issue is not with the language of the resolution, but with the lack of the international political will to get Israel to abide by whichever resolution the council adopts,” he said.

According to the diplomat, “unfortunately, the maximum that any UN Security Council resolution at the moment will do is to send a message to Israel that its huge violations of basic international law are subject to international condemnation. But who said that Israel cares about this,” he asked.

“Without some serious US pressure on Israel, it will continue to crush the Palestinians in Gaza, and it is hard to expect any serious pressure to come from any US administration on Israel one year ahead of the US presidential elections,” the diplomat said.

He added that unless the US realises that it is harming its own already challenged image among the Arab populations and decides to get Israel to honour basic international law, Israel “will continue its violations in Gaza and may even take things further as it tries to empty the entire north of the Strip to turn it into a buffer zone” at the expense of the Palestinians and literally over their dead bodies.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 19 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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