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ISRAEL-OPT: Tens of thousands flee Rafah

TEL AVIV, 9 January 2009 (IRIN) - Independent confirmation of the situation in Gaza, particularly in Rafah on the border with Egypt, is difficult as Israel’s ban on journalists entering the Strip remains in place. Telephone lines are overloaded and affected by power cuts.

Rafah residents told IRIN by phone that tens of thousands had fled heavy Israeli bombardments, with some seeking refuge at UN institutions or at homes of friends and relatives in areas further from the border but still in the south.

IRIN was told of the case of one woman from Rafah who said she and her children had to sleep on the street as she could not find any refuge and simply ran as far away from the border with Egypt as possible, as Israel was conducting air strikes against smuggling tunnels in the area.

Max Gaylord, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territories, said earlier in the week that Palestinians had nowhere to seek refuge from the fighting.

UNRWA stops aid deliveries

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) on 9 January stopped virtually all aid deliveries after one of its drivers was shot.

It also suspended staff movements after two separate incidents of Israeli fire on its convoys on 8 January. Two contracted aid workers were killed as they brought humanitarian supplies into the enclave.

“We will continue to deliver services wherever possible, but there is a complete restriction on movement,” Chris Gunness, the spokesman for UNRWA, said.

Gunness later added: “UNRWA would resume activities only once it had clear assurances from the Israeli army that a mechanism was in place to make sure its staff would not be fired upon.”

Officials from other UN agencies said they too would probably have their work curtailed, particularly as UNRWA was supplying them with logistical support.

UNRWA said the two convoys had coordinated their movements with the Israeli military, which, for its part, continued to have no comment on the incidents.

Four UN local relief workers have been killed since Israel began its offensive on 27 December.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the deaths, shortly before the Security Council passed resolution 1860 calling for a ceasefire.

Grim

Aid workers say the humanitarian situation is grim. Electricity and water services have been severely limited for two-thirds of the population since the offensive began. The World Bank warned on 7 January about an impending sewage crisis.

Electricity services improved slightly on 9 January after Israel let in supplies of fuel.

Medical officials in Gaza said hospitals were under-stocked and overcrowded, with doctors insisting they need drugs and surgical equipment, as well as more doctors to help them cope with the influx of patients. Surgeons told IRIN they were exhausted and reaching breaking point.

ICRC

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued one of its most harshly worded statements on 8 January, slamming Israel for not allowing ambulances free access to the wounded, saying it had violated international humanitarian law.

The ICRC said it had taken advantage of a “humanitarian lull” Israel offered for three-hours on 7 January to reach areas that had previously been inaccessible and found, together with the Palestinian Red Crescent, about 16 emaciated and weakened wounded people as well as well many bodies. In one case, four children, weak but alive, were found in rubble with their dead mothers.

“This is a shocking incident,” said Pierre Wettach, the ICRC’s top official for the region. “The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestine Red Crescent to assist the wounded.”

UNRWA's Gunness said a three-hour lull was a “drop in the ocean” and demanded a permanent ceasefire to halt the continued heavy impact on the civilian population.

Death toll

Palestinian medical officials in Gaza said the death toll has exceeded 770 people, with over 3,250 wounded. A doctor at Gaza’s main Al-Shifa hospital said that in recent days 80 percent of the dead and wounded were women and children, and officials estimated that over half of all those killed in the military campaign were civilians.

Nine Israeli soldiers have died and three civilians were killed by rockets fired from Gaza.

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Conflict, Food Security, Health & Nutrition, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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