Humanitarian operations in Gaza at risk of grinding to a halt for lack of fuel

Palestinians line up for food distribution in Deir al Balah, Gaza, May 10, 2024. [AP Photo]

In what they are calling an “unprecedented emergency,” U.N. agencies are warning that humanitarian operations throughout the Gaza Strip will cease within a matter of days if Israel does not reopen border crossings and allow critical fuel supplies to enter the Palestinian territory.

“For five days, no fuel and virtually no humanitarian aid entered the Gaza Strip, and we are scraping the bottom of the barrel,” Hamish Young, UNICEF’s senior emergency coordinator in the Gaza Strip said Friday.

Speaking from Rafah, Young told journalists in Geneva that “This is already a huge issue for the population and for all humanitarian actors but in a matter of days, if not corrected, the lack of fuel could grind humanitarian operations to a halt.”

The UNICEF official said that he has been working on large-scale humanitarian emergencies for the last 30 years but that he has “never been involved in a situation as devastating, complex or erratic as this.”

“When I arrived in Gaza in the middle of November, I was shocked by the severity of the impact of this conflict on children and, impossibly, it has continued to worsen,” he said.

Israeli forces seized control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza on Tuesday, bringing a halt to all aid shipments into Gaza. Israel said Wednesday it had reopened its Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza after several days of closure, but the U.N. said no humanitarian aid was going through.

COGAT, Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, says aid is entering Gaza in other ways, noting that limited shipments of aid are going in through the Erez crossing. But the World Food Program says it last received food supplies for Gaza in mid-April. Both WFP and UNRWA (U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) warn they will “run out of food for distribution in the south by Saturday.”

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports that the closure of the Rafah crossing has severed access to fuel for humanitarian activities and curtailed the movement of staff, as well as the entry of food and other lifesaving humanitarian items.

Georgios Petropoulos, head of OCHA’s sub-office in Gaza, said OCHA and several other U.N. agencies went to the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings this week to assess the security situation and found that those highly militarized areas “are not secure, they are not safe, and they are not logistically viable.”

Speaking from Rafah Friday, he said “There is a lot of work that we have to do to get into that state. We are working hard with member states to find ways to bring in supplies and to make sure that aid workers can get in and out. For this solution to be sustainable, we have to bring some kind of predictability to the aid here.

“Unless these solutions come quickly, our aid activities, our communication, lack of fuel, banking activities will halt within the next two days. Not having fuel will affect life-critical sectors.”

Shortages have already created higher prices in the market, Petropoulos said, with vulnerable members of society being forced to make difficult or dangerous choices to access what is available.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza, May 10, 2024. [AP Photo]

The United Nations reports Israel’s recent evacuation orders, which are linked to military operations in Rafah, have led to the forcible displacement of at least 110,000 people, many of whom already have been displaced multiple times.

UNICEF’s Young said that Thursday he walked around al-Mawasi, the so-called humanitarian zone where Israel has told people in eastern Rafah they should move. He described the area as being jammed with trucks, buses, cars, and donkey carts loaded with people and their possessions.

“People I speak with tell me they are exhausted, terrified and know life in al-Mawasi will, again, impossibly, be harder. Families lack proper sanitation facilities, drinking water and shelter,” Young said.

“Displaced people are subject to even greater risk of disease, infections, malnutrition, dehydration and other protection health concerns. Beyond a few mobile health points and field hospitals with limited capacity, the closest hospital is at least four kilometers away, assuming that the road to it is safe to use,” he said.

OCHA says within the next 24 hours, numerous health facilities will run out of fuel. Among those affected are five Ministry of Health-run hospitals, 28 ambulances, 17 primary health care centers, five field hospitals and 10 mobile clinics “which provide immunizations, trauma care and malnutrition services.”

Amid the gloomy picture, World Health Organization spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris noted “one bright spot.”

Thanks to international support, she said the Naser Medical Complex, which had been severely damaged during shelling by Israeli forces, has been made partially functional. The hospital is accepting dialysis patients and the laboratories are able to perform some blood tests, she said.

“But as has been made absolutely clear, without fuel all that stops,” Harris said. “All the things a hospital does, the lifesaving treatments, no longer can be done.

“If you have got somebody back from the brink, you have operated on them, you have put them on a ventilator, and the ventilator stops, they no longer breathe,” she said. “So, without fuel, no matter what everybody has done, the whole system collapses.”

Harris said WHO missions currently have been suspended in the north “to try to ensure that we can provide as much fuel as possible to hospitals in the south to keep them going.”

She said work was continuing to repair the sewage system in the Naser Medical Complex, adding that “this is something that has to be done throughout the Gaza strip.”

“A lack of sewage services, lack of clean water means if the bombs do not get you, you die of thirst, infectious diseases or simply hunger,” she said.