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Intense fighting in south Gaza as Israel vows to shut out UN agency

Intense fighting in south Gaza as Israel vows to shut out UN agency
  • PublishedJanuary 27, 2024

Intense fighting raged Saturday in the Gaza city of Khan Yunis, sending residents fleeing further south as Israel’s military targets the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The unabated hostilities came alongside soaring tensions between Israel and the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has been at the heart of humanitarian efforts in the war-battered Gaza Strip.

On Friday the agency said it had sacked several staff whom Israel accused of involvement in Hamas’s October 7 attack, leading some key donor countries to suspend funding.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Saturday that Israel wanted to ensure the UN agency, which provided education, health and other services to Palestinians in Gaza, “will not be part of the day after” the bloodiest-ever war in the territory.

A day earlier, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled Israel must prevent possible acts of genocide in the conflict — and allow in aid — but stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.

Israel’s military campaign began soon after Hamas’s October 7 attack that resulted in about 1,140 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Militants also seized about 250 hostages and Israel says around 132 of them remain in Gaza, including the bodies of at least 28 dead captives.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas, and Hamas-ruled Gaza’s health ministry says the Israeli military offensive has killed at least 26,257 people, most of them women and children.

Sewage in the streets 

The army says at least 220 soldiers have been killed since Israel began its Gaza ground operations, which are now focused around Khan Yunis, the southern hometown of Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar.

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Israel’s military on Saturday reported numerous militants killed “from close range” in Khan Yunis and said troops raided the house of a Sinwar associate and found weapons.

Special forces, in a separate operation “raided a weapons warehouse” in the Khan Yunis area where they found guns and ammunition, the army said.

Palestinians are fleeing the fighting, adding to the number already crowded into Rafah, near the Egyptian border, where the United Nations says most of Gaza’s estimated 1.7 million displaced have converged.

They live in the street, where sewage flows, amid “conditions of desperation conducive to a complete breakdown in order,” said Ajith Sunghay of the UN Human Rights Office.

AFPTV images showed people wading through ankle-deep water around tent-like plastic shelters in Rafah, where bombardment still threatens.

“There is nowhere safe in the Gaza Strip,” said Mohammed al-Shaer, inside an apartment whose wall had been blown out, leaving rubble on the floor around a child’s bed.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said at least 135 people were killed in Khan Yunis overnight.

Experts have told AFP that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s steadfast vow to eliminate Hamas is increasingly seen within his war cabinet as incompatible with returning the hostages held in Gaza.

His failure to bring home the captives has led to mounting protests and calls for early elections, more of which took place on Saturday night.

Criticism of UN 

The ICJ decision was based on an urgent application brought by South Africa, long a supporter of the Palestinian cause, but a broader judgement on whether genocide has been committed could take years.

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“This is the first time the world has told Israel that it is out of line,” said Maha Yasin, a 42-year-old displaced Gaza woman.

The UN Security Council will meet on Wednesday to give “binding effect” to the ICJ decision, said the foreign ministry of Algeria, which called the meeting.

Israel has repeatedly criticised the UN during the war.

Relations between Israel and UNRWA, which have been strained for years, had already soured further after the UN body condemned the shelling of one of its shelters in Khan Yunis on Wednesday, killing 13 people.

After UNRWA announced the sacking of several employees on Friday, its number one financial contributor the United States said it was suspending funding. Other donors followed including Britain, Finland, Canada, Australia, and Italy.

Hamas urged the international community to ignore Israel’s “threats” to stop UNRWA operating in Gaza, while the Palestinian Authority said the agency needed “maximum support” from donors.

The Hamas government said “massive tank bombardment” targeted a refugee camp in Khan Yunis and Nasser hospital, the city’s largest.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) aid group said surgical capacity was “virtually non-existent” at the facility.

Another Khan Yunis hospital, Al-Amal, was “under siege with heavy gunfire”, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said.

It added later that Israeli forces shot and killed a man at the hospital’s emergency entrance.

The Israeli military accuses Hamas of operating from tunnels under Gaza hospitals and of using the medical facilities as command centres — a charge Hamas denies.

Written By
Regina Robinson

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