UN warns that Gaza blockade may force sharp reduction in aid operations
The United Nations Palestinian refugee agency warned on Wednesday that without immediate fuel deliveries, it will soon have to sharply cut its humanitarian operations in the Gaza Strip, which has been under blockade and has suffered from destructive Israeli airstrikes since Hamas militants launched an attack on Israel over two weeks ago.
The warning came as hospitals in the Gaza Strip were struggling to provide care for the masses of wounded, with resources running low, and health officials in the Hamas-ruled territory saying the death toll was rising rapidly as Israeli aircraft continued to strike the area overnight.
Israeli military officials claimed that their strikes had killed militants and destroyed tunnels, command centers, weapon storage facilities, and other military targets, some of which Hamas is accused of hiding among the Gaza civilian population. Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip have been launching continuous rocket attacks on Israel since the conflict began.
Gaza's health ministry, run by Hamas, reported that at least 704 people, mostly women and children, had been killed as a result of the airstrikes from Monday to Tuesday. The Associated Press could not independently verify the death toll reported by Hamas, which says it is tallying figures from hospital directors.
The death toll has been unprecedented in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even greater human casualties could occur when Israel begins the expected ground offensive aimed at crippling Hamas militants.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. could not confirm the number of deaths in a single day.
"The health ministry is run by Hamas, and I think you've got to take all these things into consideration in anything that Hamas asserts," Kirby said.
Israel said on Tuesday that it had carried out 400 airstrikes in the past day, which was more than the 320 strikes the previous day.
According to the UN, about 1.4 million of Gaza's 2.3 million residents are currently internally displaced, with nearly 600,000 people crowded into UN shelters.
Residents of Gaza have been facing shortages of food, water, and medicine since Israel isolated the territory following Hamas' attacks on southern Israel, during which Hamas vowed to destroy Israel.
In recent days, Israel has allowed a small amount of humanitarian aid trucks to cross into Gaza from Egypt but has barred the delivery of fuel needed to power hospital generators to prevent it from falling into Hamas' hands.
The UN reported that in recent days, it managed to deliver some aid to hospitals treating the wounded. However, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, the largest provider of humanitarian services in Gaza, said it is running out of fuel.
Officials said they had been forced to scale back their operations as they rationed the limited fuel they had.
"Without fuel, our trucks won't be able to move to other distribution sites," said Lily Esposito, an agency spokesperson. "We will have to make decisions about what activities we can continue using very little fuel."
Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, more than half of primary health care facilities in Gaza and approximately one-third of hospitals have ceased operations.
Overwhelmed hospital staff struggled to triage patients as constant waves of wounded arrived. The health ministry reported that many injured individuals lay on the floor without even basic medical care, while others waited for surgeries for several days due to the high number of critical cases.
The health ministry reports that over 5,700 Palestinians have died during the conflict, including around 2,300 minors. This figure includes disputed casualties from an explosion at a hospital last week.
According to the Israeli government, more than 1,400 people have died in Israel as a result of the fighting, mostly civilians killed during Hamas' initial attacks. Hamas also holds about 222 people who it captured and returned to Gaza.
According to the Syrian state news agency SANA, the conflict threatened to spread across the region on Wednesday as Israeli airstrikes targeted military facilities in southern Syria, killing eight soldiers and injuring seven.
Israeli military officials said in a statement on Twitter that their aircraft had struck Syrian military infrastructure and mortar systems in response to rocket launches from Syria.
In recent days, Israel has carried out several strikes in Syria, including attacks that disabled airports in Damascus and Aleppo, apparently aiming to prevent weapons deliveries from Iran to militant groups, including Lebanon's Hezbollah. In recent weeks, Israel has been engaged in fighting with Iran-backed Hezbollah along the Lebanon border.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah met with senior representatives of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad on Wednesday in their first meeting since the start of the conflict. Such a meeting may signal coordination among the groups, as Hezbollah officials have warned Israel against launching a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagar claimed that Iran is assisting Hamas by providing intelligence and "stoking incitement against Israel worldwide." He said that Iranian proxies have also been acting against Israel from Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon.
Meanwhile, clashes have erupted in the West Bank, where there has been a sharp increase in violence.
Islamic Jihad militants said they fought with Israeli forces in Jenin overnight. The Palestinian Health Ministry in the West Bank reported that Israel killed four Palestinians in Jenin, including a 15-year-old, and two others in different cities. The total number of Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank since October 7 has reached 102.
In the central and southern parts of the Gaza Strip, where Israel has instructed civilians to take cover, there have been numerous scenes of rescuers pulling the dead and wounded from the large piles of rubble from collapsed buildings. Graphic photos and videos taken by AP show rescuers digging out children's bodies among the numerous ruins.
A father knelt on the floor of al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir el-Balah beside the bodies of three dead children, wrapped in bloodstained sheets like cocoons. Later, at a nearby morgue, workers prayed over 24 bodies, wrapped in body bags, some the size of young children.
Survivors reported that in several instances, buildings that collapsed on residents killed dozens of people simultaneously. According to the Health Ministry, two families lost 47 members in a collapsed building in Rafah.
Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yair Lapid, told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that Israel would stop issuing visas to UN personnel after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the Hamas attack "did not happen out of nowhere." It was unclear what this action, if implemented, would mean for UN staff working in Gaza and the West Bank.
"It's time to teach them a lesson," Erdan said on Army Radio, accusing the UN chief of justifying the massacre.
Guterres told the Security Council on Tuesday that the Palestinian people have endured a "relentless 56-year occupation." He also said, "The Palestinian people's discontent cannot justify Hamas' horrifying attacks. And these horrifying attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people."