Gaza water supplies dwindle as Israel lays siege to strip

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People in the Gaza strip now have only “severely limited access” to drinking water, the UN has warned, as Israeli bombardments prompted a quarter of a million people to crowd into shelters over the past 24 hours.

“Gaza is running dry,” the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency said on Monday. “People across Gaza have severely limited access to clean drinking water.”

UNRWA, the refugee agency for Palestinians, said most of those seeking shelter — amounting to hundreds of thousands of people — had fled to schools, where “clean water has actually run out”.

The warning comes as the UN presses Israel to agree to the opening of safe corridors for the movement of Palestinians within Gaza and the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the blockaded enclave.

UNRWA said the fifth consecutive day without electricity was pushing services such as health, water and sanitation to “the brink of collapse”. The agency said it was now rationing water for its own staff to one litre per day, which has to serve for drinking and other needs.

Israel said on Sunday it had reopened some water lines into Gaza, but the supplies cannot be pumped without fuel, which is running out after Israel blocked supplies into the strip. Some bottled water can be found in local shops.

“People are now consuming brackish water from agricultural wells, triggering serious concerns over the spread of waterborne diseases,” UNRWA said in an update issued on Monday.

“We are struggling to replenish our drinking water,” said one man who had travelled with his family from Gaza City to the south.

Displaced Palestinians shelter in a UN school in Khan Younis, while tens of thousands have fled south © Mohammed Talatene/dpa

The UN says more than 1mn people, almost half of Gaza’s population, are now displaced, with around 600,000 south of Wadi Gaza, the line that the Israeli army has demanded Gazans cross from the north to escape its expected military campaign against Hamas.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said on Sunday that “an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding under our eyes”.

Israel is widely believed to be preparing a ground offensive following the devastating attack launched by the militant group on southern Israel on October 7, in which Hamas militants killed more than 1,400 people and took almost 200 hostage. Palestinian health officials said on Monday that Israel’s bombardment following that attack had killed 2,750 people in Gaza.

Despite the evacuation order first issued on Friday, the UN said an unknown number of displaced people remained in its schools in Gaza City and the north. More than 160,000 people had already been sheltering in 57 of its facilities before Friday’s order.

Intense bombing overnight on Sunday fuelled an exodus of people out of homes into hospitals and schools to seek shelter.

Laila Labad, 55, who has fled to the south, said that 13 relatives including five children were killed when a bomb hit their house in the northern city of Beit Lahiya near her own home.

“It was a terrifying night — random bombing in the entire area,” she said. “I don’t know for what crime they were killed. They were unarmed, defenceless civilians.”

Israel-Hamas war

One of Laila’s relatives, Abdul Karim Labad, said that members of his uncle’s family had also been killed in an Israeli strike on their neighbours’ house in the same district. Four of them had died and a search was under way for three others, he added.

“The scene was heinous, terrible destruction,” said Abdul Karim, who lives in nearby Jabalia and has chosen to stay.

“The bombing destroyed the entire neighbourhood, all of them civilians. We are still searching for victims under the rubble,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine that there are children and women beneath the debris.”

Others are seeking safety within the north, defying the Israeli order to evacuate to the south, a journey that itself has proved hazardous.

Amal Subeih, a 34-year-old mother of three, said she had moved to a house near a northern hospital, where she plans to take refuge when the bombardment intensifies again.

She spent Sunday night under some stairs in Jabalia refugee camp, trying to calm her children. “The sound of missiles was terrifying and continuous. I felt we would inevitably die,” she said.

Additional reporting by Samer Al-Atrush in Dubai

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