GAZA/JERUSALEM – UN aid deliveries to Gaza were suspended on Friday due to fuel shortages and the shutdown of communications, worsening the misery of thousands of hungry and homeless Palestinians as Israeli troops battled Hamas militants in enclave.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) said civilians face the “immediate possibility of starvation” due to a lack of food supply.
International officials say the humanitarian crisis for Gaza’s 2.3 million residents is entering a new, more dire phase as the war enters its seventh week.
Israel has vowed to annihilate the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza since its fighters killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages in a deadly attack on October 7.
Since then, Israel has bombed much of Gaza into rubble, ordered the depopulation of the entire northern half of the enclave, and left about two-thirds of Gazans without shelter.
Gaza health authorities, considered credible by the United Nations, say more than 11,500 people have been confirmed dead, 40% of them children, with many more trapped under the rubble. They have been unable to update this number for several days due to lack of communication.
At Gaza’s largest hospital, Al Shifa, the focus of international alarm this week as the main target of Israel’s ground attack, Israel said its forces found a vehicle with a large number of weapons and an underground structure it called a Hamas tunnel, after spent two days searching the place.
The army released a video that it said showed a tunnel entrance in an area outside the hospital, filled with concrete, wooden debris and sand. It looked like the area had been excavated. An excavator appeared in the background.
The army also said it found the bodies of two hostages in buildings near, but not inside, the hospital.
Israel has long maintained that the hospital sat above a vast underground bunker that housed a Hamas command headquarters. Hospital officials say this is false and that Israel’s findings so far have not established such a thing.
Hamas denies using hospitals for military purposes. It states that some hostages received treatment in medical centers but were not kept inside.
Al Shifa staff said a premature baby died at the hospital on Friday, the first baby to die there in the two days since Israeli forces entered. Three died in the previous days while the hospital was surrounded.
Israel said it would send aid, including incubators, to rescue 36 babies who had been kept eight to a bed to stay warm since the neonatal ward was decommissioned last week. But the team said the Israelis did not allow any meaningful help to the babies or hundreds of other patients and thousands of displaced people trapped inside the compound while Israeli commandos searched it.
Five babies were in a very serious condition, the director of the Al Shifa hospital complex, Muhammad Abu Salmiya, told Al Jazeera.
“We are trying to keep them alive, wrapping them in cellophane, putting hot water bottles near them to keep them alive, our attempts are what keeps them alive.”
Communication with outside organizations was cut off and calls to evacuate those in the most desperate conditions went unanswered, he said.
“There is nothing in the hospital except more dead bodies, there are no vital needs in the hospital, no electricity, no water, no oxygen, no food. The Israeli army is roaming freely around the hospital. The hospital is surrounded on all sides, tanks surround us on all sides.”
The last fully functioning hospital in the northern half of Gaza, Al Ahli, was forced to close its surgery department after running out of anesthetics. British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu Sitta, who escaped south on foot, told Reuters he decided to leave because he now had no power to help patients.
“It’s been a nightmare – leaving 500 injured knowing there’s nothing more you can do for them, it’s just the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do,” Abu Sitta said by phone.
With the war about to enter its seventh week, there have been no signs of any slowdown, despite international calls for a ceasefire or at least humanitarian pauses.
The Israeli military, which has focused its attack on northern Gaza, said its troops and warplanes were maintaining pressure on Friday.
Overnight, they took control of an Islamic Jihad commander’s stronghold, the military said, and also killed Hamas fighters inside a school where they found a large number of weapons.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), citing Palestinian data, said Israeli strikes destroyed or damaged at least 45% of Gaza’s housing units.
The United Nations said there would be no cross-border aid operations on Friday due to fuel shortages and communications shutdowns. For the second day in a row, no aid trucks arrived in Gaza due to a lack of fuel for the distribution of humanitarian aid.
An Israeli official said later on Friday that Israel’s war cabinet approved the entry of two fuel trucks a day into Gaza to help meet UN needs, following a US request.
Nearly the entire population of Gaza is in desperate need of food assistance, said WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain.
“With winter fast approaching, shelters unsafe and overcrowded, and a lack of clean water, civilians face the immediate possibility of starvation,” she said in a statement.
A UN human rights official said Israel must allow water and fuel into Gaza to restart the water supply network, otherwise people would die from thirst and disease. Israel’s actions were a violation of international law, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo said.
The World Health Organization said it fears the spread of diseases, including respiratory infections and diarrhea.
The Israeli military chief of staff said Israel was close to destroying Hamas’ military system in the north of the coastal enclave.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Hamas’ Al-Quds Brigades said they clashed with Israeli forces for several hours in the city of Jenin overnight.
Israel’s military said warplanes struck militants in Jenin who opened fire on Israeli soldiers and at least five militants were killed.
At least 178 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since October 7. The violence there has highlighted fears that the territory, seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, could spiral out of control in parallel with the conflict in Gaza.