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A top UN official has warned that Gaza risks being plunged into a humanitarian “tsunami”, as a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas ended and Israeli forces resumed their offensive on the besieged strip.
Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, said the population of Gaza had been weakened so much that he feared many people would start dying from diseases as well as Israel’s bombardment of the enclave.
“I’m very worried about entering winter, having seen the impact of the siege . . . having seen the weakening of the immunity of the people after such a war, their deprivation and suffering, that we might be on the eve of a perfect kind of humanitarian catastrophe-tsunami,” Lazzarini told the Financial Times, speaking before the truce ended.
Israel has laid siege to Gaza since launching an offensive against Hamas after the militant group’s October 7 attack that killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Its air and land assault on the strip, which Hamas has controlled since 2007, has killed more than 14,800 people, many of them women and children, according to Palestinian health officials.
Israel and Hamas agreed to a truce last week to facilitate the release of hostages captured during the October 7 attack and allow more aid into the enclave, which is enduring severe shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine.
But Israel’s military said on Friday that it had restarted fighting against Hamas in Gaza.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly insisted that they would not be diverted from their stated aim of destroying Hamas and eradicating it from Gaza.
Its military chiefs have indicated that after focusing on northern Gaza they are now preparing to extend the offensive into the strip’s south where more than 1mn people have fled.
After launching its ground offensive, Israel ordered Gazans to leave the north, which has led to the displacement of 1.8mn people. Lazzarini said 80 per cent of the strip’s population was now in the south.
“If you have an offensive with the same intensity [in the south] . . . one would expect not only massive re-displacement of the population,” he said. “The fear is there will also be a staggering number of people who might be killed, especially with this density of population.”
Lazzarini added that health workers were already warning of a “significant increase in waterborne disease, the emergence of hepatitis and skin disease” due to a “combination of not having enough food, access to clean water, and increasingly unsanitary conditions”.
The head of UNRWA said he was “completely shocked and heartbroken” when he visited Gaza last week, describing people who were forced from their homes sheltering in public buildings and “pleading for the most basic of the basics”.
While visiting a vocational training centre where 35,000 people had sought sanctuary, he said he spoke to a family of six, sleeping on the concrete floor, with no blankets or mattresses and who have been living in the same clothes for 50 days.
“They feel stripped of their dignity,” Lazzarini said of those forced to live there, explaining that they had to queue for hours to use toilets that overflowed with sewage. “This place was overcrowded, the most appalling sanitary living conditions . . . they can’t receive more people because of how overcrowded it is.”
More aid reached Gaza during the week-long pause in hostilities, with at least 200 trucks supposed to be entering the strip daily under the agreement. But that is far less than the 500 trucks a day that were entering the enclave before the war.
A return to full-scale hostilities “will precipitate and accelerate large-scale dying”, Lazzarini said. “You will most likely see more and more people dying because of the impact of the siege . . . they will not stand additional weeks and months of total deprivation.”