Catastrophe looms in Rafah

Alaa Al-Mashharawi, Wednesday 22 May 2024

There are increasing warnings of further humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip as Israel continues its attacks on Rafah.

Catastrophe looms in Rafah
Palestinians wait for aid trucks to cross in central Gaza Strip via the floating pier (photo: AP)


In the couple of weeks since the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) launched the invasion of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, seizing control of the Rafah Crossing with Egypt and sealing off the Karam Abu Salem Crossing to all food and medical relief trucks, warnings of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe have grown increasingly dire.

This is despite the US Navy’s completion of a floating pier off the Gaza Strip with the stated aim being to bring in aid. However, the Palestinian factions say that the real purpose of the pier is to serve the Israeli Occupation’s ultimate goal of the ethnic cleansing of the Strip. Egypt has reiterated its refusal to lend itself to that end by opening the Sinai to the forceful expulsion of the Gazan population.

Over 22,000 ill and wounded people now desperately need to be transferred to hospitals abroad, according to official Gazan Ministry of Healthfigures. The few still partially functioning hospitals in the Strip are unable to treat them as Israel has sealed off all access to medical supplies and the fuel needed to operate medical facilities and equipment.

UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations have issued urgent appeals to allow some 10,000 cancer patients to receive treatment abroad because the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital is no longer able to treat them.

“We have 11,000 wounded people who urgently require life-saving surgery,” Iyad Qadrih, head of the Hospitals Unit of the Ministry of Health in Gaza, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The two remaining hospitals in the Strip, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital and the European Hospital, are unable to perform the surgeries while the closure of the Rafah Crossing prevents medical personnel from escorting the patients abroad for treatment.”

Qadrih said that the simultaneous closure of the Karam Abu Salem Crossing was preventing the entry of dozens of trucks carrying essential medical equipment and supplies and the fuel needed to operate medical facilities and equipment.

“These measures are aggravating the already severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza and threatening a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. The collapse of the healthcare system due to the deliberate destruction of hospitals, forcing them to cease operations, is intended to further the genocide the Occupation is carrying out against women, children, and civilians in general.”

At least 3,000 trucks filled with food and other relief supplies are parked on the Egyptian side of the border, unable to enter due to the closure of the two crossings, which is now entering its third week and heightening the risk of famine, Ayed Abu Ramadan, municipal leader and president of the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, told the Weekly.

He urged the international community and the US and the EUto do their duty under international law to stop the unfolding genocide, instead of “giving the Occupation the green light to continue its crimes and persist in the policies of blockade and mass starvation, in violation of international law and international humanitarian law.”

He called on the UN and other international organisations to pressure the Israeli Occupation to “stop this genocidal war and reopen the crossings immediately to allow in aid for the more than 2.4 million Palestinians in Gaza who survive almost entirely on aid.”

Other officials in Gaza have warned of the worsening humanitarian disaster caused by Israel’s deliberate targeting of the health sector and relief efforts in Gaza.

“The siege of Rafah, combined with putting 33 hospitals out of service, preventing more than 22,000 ill and wounded people from receiving treatment abroad, and the banning of the entry of food and relief are intended to build pressure on the million Palestinians still in the Rafah Governorate, most of whom are women, children, and the elderly,” Ismail Al-Thawabta, director of the Gaza Media Office, told the Weekly.

Warning of the high risk that hundreds of thousands of civilians will be added to the lists of the dead, wounded, and starving, Al-Thawabta said that “we hold the Israeli Occupation and the US, which supports it financially and politically, fully responsible for the crime of genocide against our people and the escalation in the mass starvation, ethnic cleansing, forceful displacement, and kidnapping and torturing of innocent civilians.”

“We call on the international community and the UN institutions to take urgent action to stop this crime and end the ongoing humanitarian disaster that our people have been suffering for more than seven months. The world must act to force the Occupation to stop the genocide and to withdraw from the Rafah Crossing so that it can be reopened to the safe delivery of desperately needed relief and medical aid.”

As the civilian population under siege in Gaza faces the onset of a mass famine, the US has begun to send in aid through its recently completed floating pier. Given the timing, many Palestinians see the US as working in tandem with the Israeli closure of the Rafah and Karam Abu Salem Crossings.

According to news reports, the aid shipments heading for the pier arrive from Cyprus, where they are first inspected by Israeli authorities. The UN in Gaza oversees the reception and distribution of the supplies.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterresdescribed this as “an ongoing multinational effort to deliver additional aid to Palestinians in Gaza through a maritime corridor that is entirely humanitarian in nature and will involve aid commodities donated by a number of countries and humanitarian organisations.”

However, the Palestinian factions suspect malign ulterior motives. They fear that the pier will also be used to help Israel expel Palestinians from Gaza and sustain its control over the Rafah Crossing.

Reiterating its opposition to any foreign military presence on Palestinian territory, the Palestinian group Hamas stressed that “no means for bringing in aid, including the floating pier, can serve as an alternative to the reopening of all the land crossings under Palestinian supervision.”

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also viewed the US-made floating pier with concern, warning that it could be used for other purposes apart from delivering aid, such as forced displacement and military support for the Occupation.

Salah Abdel-Ati, chair of the International Organisation for Palestinian Rights (Hashd), said in an exclusive interview with the Weeklythat not only is the pier intended to supplant the vital role the Rafah Crossing plays as a key avenue for the movement of Palestinians out of Gaza and the entry of goods into Gaza, but “it also raises suspicions that it will serve hidden purposes.”

These include “the establishment of a US military presence in the heart of the region and the implementation of the forced expulsion of the Palestinian people through a portal not linked to Egypt which has refused to abet their expulsion,” Abdel-Ati said.

“The pier helps Israel control the movement of everything into and out of Gaza indirectly via international partiesand organisations. It offers Israel a great opportunity to accomplish its aim of driving out the population of Gaza after having turned it into a place that is unsuitable for human life.”

It is no coincidence that the US-made pier is anchored immediately opposite the so-called Netzarim Corridor, which extends from the Nahal Oz Crossing to the waterfront, dividing the Strip into two.

“This is the real aim,” said Tamara Haddad, a researcher specialising in Palestinian affairs, in an interview with the Weekly. “The stated aim is ‘humanitarian aid,’ but the unstated aims are to appropriate land from Gaza and to build an Israeli-US naval base to enable Israel to reposition itself militarily in Gaza.”

“Israel could also use the pier to facilitate the exploitation of Palestine’s offshore natural gas, depriving the Palestinians of this resource,” she said.

Israeli affairs scholar Tawfiq Abu Shomer told the Weeklythat “the floating pier, which in essence is an extension of the Port of Ashdod, is intended to achieve several Israeli-US goals. Foremost among these are splitting Gaza into northern and southern halves, reinforcing the dividing line (the Netzarim Corridor) to facilitate the displacement of the inhabitants of the northern half, seizing the two gas wells at the northern border of Gaza across from Gaza City, and facilitating Israeli-US control over the area through the effective creation of a US-Israeli base.”

Abu Shomer underscored the widespread concern that the pier will be used for nefarious ends such as forced displacement, as the Palestinian factions have warned.

Palestinian affairs expert Antoine Shalhatsaid that since the beginning of the Israeli assault on Gaza, the US has reiterated two concerns: the reductions in humanitarian aid and the harm inflicted on the civilian population.

Washington’s announcement of its intention to build the pier signalled an intention to address the first concern, Shalhat said, and the Biden administration’s gradual shift in favour of a ceasefire may increase the chances that the pier will remain an alternative to the Rafah Crossing.

However, “if the US does not force Israel to stop the war and withdraw from Rafah and the land crossings, it will become an accomplice in the Israeli war of genocide, regardless of the humanitarian aid delivered through the floating pier,” he added.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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