Palestinians flee Rafah as crossings remain closed

The site of a building bombarded by Israeli forces in Rafah, southern Gaza, 9 May.

Abdullah Abu Al-Khair APA images

Palestinians streamed out of Rafah as Israel pounded the area, issued additional evacuation orders east of Gaza’s most southern city and truce negotiations ground to a halt.

On Saturday, Israel ordered displaced Palestinians in Jabaliya, in northern Gaza where Hamas forces have reportedly regrouped, and nearly a dozen other neighborhoods in the territory to immediately move.

Heavy fighting between Palestinian resistance fighters and Israeli ground forces were reported south of Gaza City and in eastern Rafah, including in the area of Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings, in recent days.

Israel seized control of Rafah Crossing earlier in the week and closed Kerem Shalom on Monday after a deadly rocket attack against troops positioned nearby the previous day.

“The closure of the crossings means no fuel. It means no trucks, no generators, no water, no electricity and no movement of people or goods,” Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian chief, said on Thursday.

“Civilians in Gaza are being starved and killed, and we are prevented from helping them,” he added.

“Nothing and no one had been allowed in or out of Gaza” over the past three days, Griffiths said on Thursday.

United Nations aid agencies warned that humanitarian operations will be forced to end in the coming days if the crossings remain closed and that “this will result in children dying,” according to Hamish Young, a coordinator with the UN children’s fund UNICEF.

Only a trickle of supplies have come in through Erez checkpoint in northern Gaza while the southern crossings remain closed.

Israel allowed some 157,000 liters of fuel to enter Kerem Shalom on Friday but no humanitarian aid, including food and medical supplies, had been brought in through Gaza’s main crossing for goods since Sunday, a senior official with UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, told The New York Times.

That delivery of fuel to Gaza, which has been supply of electricity since early October, “holds off that collapse temporarily, but leaders of the aid effort say reserves remain dangerously low, and there is still a deepening hunger crisis,” the paper said.

The closure of Rafah Crossing has prevented nearly 160 critical patients, including people with cancer, from leaving Gaza to receive medical treatment abroad, according to the government media office in the territory.

Access to treatment outside of Gaza was severely restricted even before the closing of Rafah this week. Just over half of all patients with requests for medical evacuations from Gaza had been approved by Israel, with four out of five of those who received approval making it out of the territory, according to the UN.

Four Israeli soldiers were killed by an explosive device in the Zaytoun neighborhood near Gaza City on Friday and two soldiers were severely injured by missile fire in southern Gaza, the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported.

Hamas said on Friday that it fired a barrage of rockets from Gaza towards Bir al-Saba, known in Hebrew as Beersheva. Rockets fired from Lebanon hit Kiryat Shmona along Israel’s northern front.

Negotiations between Israel and Hamas were back to square one after Israel rejected a Qatari-Egyptian proposal apparently endorsed by the United States and accepted by Hamas earlier this week, according to a statement from the faction.

Hamas said that it would consult with other Palestinian factions “to review our negotiation strategy.”

Israel presses on in Rafah

Israel’s security and war cabinets voted to press on with the offensive in Rafah on Friday, despite the stated opposition of Washington.

On Wednesday, two days after Israeli ground forces began to move into Rafah, US President Joe Biden said in an interview with CNN that “I made it clear that if they go into Rafah … I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities – that deal with that problem.”

Washington has already paused a shipment of thousands of 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs destined for Israel.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” Biden said of the heavy-duty, US-supplied munitions.

But US weapons worth billions of dollars are still in the pipeline for Israel, as Reuters reports.

These weapons include “joint direct attack munitions (JDAMS), which convert dumb bombs into precision weapons; and tank rounds, mortars and armored tactical vehicles,” according to Reuters, which cited Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The delay on the shipment of heavy bombs appears to be a warning to the Israeli government and a move towards placating domestic disapproval over the Biden administration’s unconditional support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Likewise, the Biden administration’s supposed red line against a major military offensive in Rafah seems calculated to make it seem like it is opposed to Israel’s actions.

In reality, Israel appears to be following the incremental approach recommended by the Pentagon for its Rafah offensive, which is resulting in civilian deaths, mass displacement and the collapse of humanitarian operations in the territory – the very outcomes the Biden administration warned Israel to avoid.

Palestinian children killed

Two Palestinian boys were reported killed and 17 others injured in a strike on a home in southern Rafah on 7 May, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Five Palestinians were killed and 16 injured in a strike on a home in the Tel al-Sultan area in western Rafah the following day.

Israeli strikes killed Palestinians elsewhere in Gaza during the week.

Seven Palestinians were reported killed and 14 others injured in a strike on a home sheltering displaced persons in the Zaytoun neighborhood in the Gaza City area on 7 May.

Thirteen Palestinians were killed and others injured when a dental clinic was struck in Shawa Square east of Gaza City the following day. Also on 8 May, 11 Palestinians, four of them children, were reported killed in a strike in the vicinity of a mosque in the al-Tuffah neighborhood east of Gaza City.

On Saturday, the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza reported that 37 Palestinians, the majority of them in the central area, were killed in Israeli airstrikes overnight.

The health ministry said on Friday that 39 Palestsinians had been killed and another 58 injured in six “massacres against families” in the past 24 hours.

The ministry added that some 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since 7 October. The actual number of fatalities is likely much higher, with many people still missing under the rubble of destroyed buildings or their bodies laying in the streets in areas inaccessible to civil defense crews.

The government media office in Gaza announced the discovery of a third mass grave at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Thursday. The latest discovery brings to seven the number of mass graves found at Gaza’s hospitals, with three at al-Shifa, three at Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis and one at Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza.

More than 500 bodies have been recovered from those mass graves, according to the office.

Palestinians flee Rafah

The UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) said on Saturday that an estimated 150,000 Palestsinians had fled Rafah since Monday, many of them having already been forcibly displaced multiple times.

People are “looking for safety where there’s none,” according to UNRWA.

The Israeli military estimated on Saturday that 300,000 Palestinians had moved to al-Mawasi, an already overcrowded area lacking basic services that Israel has unilaterally declared a “humanitarian zone.”

More than a million Palestinians displaced from elsewhere in Gaza had been concentrated in Rafah before Israel issued evacuation orders in the eastern part of the area on Monday.

People fleeing Rafah are paying hundreds of dollars in transportation fees and some are setting up tents on the rubble of destroyed buildings or in empty UNRWA schools in Khan Younis, according to the UN.

“Multiple informal displacement sites have emerged” in central Gaza, the UN added. “These areas lack infrastructure and basic services needed to support people’s access to food, water and health care.”

“Fuel shortages continue to hinder the ability of aid actors to address priority needs of [internally displaced persons], including shelter, food, water, non-food and hygiene items, and sanitation facilities,” the UN said.

A camp for internally displaced people in Rafah, southern Gaza, along the border with Egypt, 9 May.

Omar Ashtawy APA images

The lack of fuel will soon shut down the remaining hospitals and other health facilities in Gaza, with a critical risk to the lives of patients in intensive care units, “including newborns in neonatal ICUs, trauma patients requiring emergency surgeries and pregnant women in need of cesarean sections (C-sections),” the UN added.

The depletion of fuel stocks also puts the lives of kidney patients in immediate danger.

Around 1,500 patients who were receiving treatment for kidney failure at al-Najjar hospital in Rafah are now “left with limited options that are also subject to fuel availability,” the UN said, with limited dialysis machines now installed at Nasser Medical Complex, recently devastated by the Israeli military, and at al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah.

Meanwhile, eight bakeries in southern Gaza were forced to shut down and four more will soon follow due to a lack of fuel and supplies. Four bakeries currently operating in northern Gaza, where famine is widespread after being cut off from aid for months, “have one week of supplies available for bread production,” the UN said.

Israel contravening World Court orders

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said that “Israel is contravening the International Court of Justice’s legally binding orders by obstructing the entry of lifesaving aid and services into Gaza.”

“Despite children dying from starvation and famine in Gaza, the Israeli authorities are still blocking aid critical for the survival of Gaza’s population in defiance of the World Court,” said Omar Shakir, a program director with Human Rights Watch.

“With each day that Israeli authorities block lifesaving aid, more Palestinians are at risk of dying.”

The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, said there was a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza in late January and issued provisional measures that include ordering Israel to allow the provision of humanitarian aid and basic services.

The court issued additional provisional measures to that effect again in April.

On Friday, South Africa filed an urgent request with the International Court of Justice asking it to issue new provisional measures including that Israel “immediately withdraw and cease its military offensive” against Rafah.

South Africa argued that the measures previously ordered by the court were insufficient because of the extreme risk to humanitarian operations and “the very survival of Palestinians in Gaza as a group” posed by Israel’s assault on Rafah.

The Rafah offensive “is not only an escalation of the prevailing situation, but gives rise to new facts that are causing irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people in Gaza,” according to South Africa.

The International Criminal Court – a separate body that deals with individuals rather than state responsibility – is also examining Israel’s conduct in Gaza.

Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the court, has previously warned Israel regarding the blocking of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Khan said in February that “those who do not comply with the law should not complain later when my office takes action pursuant to its mandate.”


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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.