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Israel’s Rafah attack cuts aid for Gaza to a trickle

The flow of crucial food and medicine into the Gaza Strip — already severely constricted by eight months of war — has slowed to a trickle after Israeli troops moved into Rafah this week and halted traffic at two major border crossings.

The UN has only 15,000 litres of fuel left for generators — including those in hospitals — and vehicles in southern Gaza, less than 10 per cent of daily demand, said Scott Anderson, senior deputy director at the UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinians in Gaza.

After nearly three days of disrupted humanitarian aid convoys, warehouses will run out of flour and ready-to-eat meals within days, he said.

Israel took control of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Monday, and temporarily shuttered the Kerem Shalom crossing on the Israeli side of the border after a mortar attack killed four soldiers on Sunday.

After the White House on Tuesday night described the closures as “unacceptable”, Israeli officials declared that Kerem Shalom had been reopened, but UN officials said only a small number of trucks were cleared by Israel, and the fighting made it impossible for the UN to pick them up.

“If the crossing remains closed and we do not get fuel to operate generators, the situation will be beyond catastrophic,” said Dr Jamal al-Hams, director of the Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah.

Another UN official said humanitarian agencies had already started to ration their use of fuel. Not all fuel stocks inside Gaza were accessible because storage facilities were close to the fighting, the official said.

A smaller corridor to northern Gaza from Israel, called Erez, remains a choke point, with trucks having to enter through holes in the border fence despite Israel declaring the crossing open during US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s visit on April 30.

Some 60 trucks entered on Tuesday through Erez, the Israeli military said, down from more than 500 by all routes before the war began on October 7.

“Without a predictable and reliable pipeline, even in two days of closures, the impact is immediate,” said Anderson, speaking from an UNRWA office in Rafah.

“The impact on fuel is the greatest — hospital generators will shut down in three days, which affects people in the ICUs and babies in incubators — but literally everything here depends on the fuel that’s brought in, from water supplies to waste management.”

The precariousness of the aid pipeline as the war in Gaza enters its eighth month has strained Israel’s relationship with the US, where the State Department is expected later on Wednesday to submit an assessment on whether Israel has complied with its obligations under US and international humanitarian law to facilitate the transfer of aid.

That assessment, forced upon the White House in February by House Democrats alarmed at the toll Israel’s war with Hamas has wrought upon Palestinian civilians, will certify whether Israel has acted to “arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly”, delivery of any US-supported humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Israel says it places no limits on how much humanitarian aid can enter Gaza, and has blamed the UN and other agencies for their inability to distribute it.

The US provides aid to Palestinians through various channels, including a currently-suspended annual commitment of about $400mn to UNRWA, the USAID programme and contributions to the World Food Programme and other aid agencies. Of particular concern is the decision by far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich to hold up hundreds of tonnes of flour at the Ashdod port earlier this year for several weeks.

Several aid organisations, including Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said earlier this week that the total amount of food entering the Gaza Strip in the first 180 or so days of the war amounted to less than half of the amount necessary for human survival.

They also reported a significant lack of progress towards seven separate commitments made by Israel to improve humanitarian access after the Israel Defense Forces killed seven workers of the World Central Kitchen, in a bombing the military acknowledged was a mistake.

A second part of the US assessment will look into whether Israel — or any other recipient of American military assistance — has used US-provided weapons in a manner consistent with international law.

The White House last week delayed the delivery of 3,500 bombs, including the large, 2,000lb weapons that Israel has deployed in the Gaza Strip, killing a large number of Palestinians in the densely populated enclave.

The delays were tied to US concerns about how those weapons would be used in Rafah, where more than 1mn Palestinians have sought shelter from the fighting in the rest of the devastated territory, a senior US administration official said on Tuesday night.

Israel’s takeover of the Rafah crossing came less than 24 hours after it issued an evacuation order to more than 100,000 civilians on the eastern edge of the border town. That area included several warehouses for aid, and infrastructure for the distribution of food and other essentials to the rest of Gaza.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled from much of Rafah since Sunday, as prices soared in the markets and Israeli bombings grew closer. Parts of the border city, whose population has swelled to nearly 1.3mn from the influx of the internally displaced, resembled a ghost town on Wednesday morning.

“The situation is terrifying beyond description,” said Ahlam Walid, a 34-year-old from Gaza City sharing a tent with his and another family. “The bombardment is nonstop and getting closer.”

The price of sugar has jumped threefold, vegetables have doubled and meat has disappeared from the market, she said.

Satellite visualisation by Jana Tauschinski

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