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UN: Gaza crisis deepens as donor nations cut aid

Asia
 Palestinians carry some belongings as they flee Khan Younis to safer areas, Jan. 26, 2024. [AFP]

The United Nations’ relief agency for Palestinians warned Thursday of a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza if 16 donor countries continue to withhold financial support while the U.N. investigates the role that a dozen aid workers allegedly played in the shock October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel.

Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee south from Khan Younis in the last week to escape Israel’s bombardment of Gaza’s second biggest city, adding to the 1.4 million displaced already sheltering in the Rafah region near the Egyptian border, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said in a statement.

“Rafah has become a sea of people fleeing bombardments,” said Thomas White, director of the agency’s Gaza affairs. The U.N. agency said most of those fleeing Khan Younis are living in makeshift structures, tents or out in the open.

The 16 countries, led by the United States, suspended $440 million in aid to UNRWA after evidence emerged that 12 of the agency’s 3,000 workers in Gaza assisted Hamas militants in the attack in which some 1,200 people were killed. Nine of the workers were immediately fired, two were reported dead and the identity of another was yet to be determined.

UNRWA said its relief operations in Gaza and throughout the Middle East could be shut down by the end of February if funding is not restored, although the aid could be resumed if the U.N. investigation of the 12 aid workers is satisfactorily completed.

White said famine is looming for the Palestinians who remained in north Gaza despite Israeli air attacks and its ground offensive. Gaza health officials say nearly 27,000 people have been killed throughout the territory, most of them women and children, during Israel’s counter-offensive since the October Hamas attack.

“UNRWA received reports that people in the (northern) area are grinding bird feed to make flour,” White said. “We continue to coordinate with the Israeli Army to be able to go to the north, but this has been largely denied. When our convoys are finally permitted to go to the area, people rush to the trucks to get food and often eat it on the spot.”

Israel on Thursday returned 114 Palestinians, including four women, to Gaza from detention in Israel, according to Gazan authorities and Palestinian media. It appeared to be one of the largest such releases during the nearly four-month Israel-Hamas war.

The Israeli military said the Palestinians had been detained on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity but were freed when they were cleared of the accusations.

A spokesman for the Gaza crossings authority, Hisham Adwan, charged that many of those released had been subjected to “torture and abuse” during their Israeli imprisonment.

U.S. President Joe Biden, while supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, has for months pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to limit the counter-offensive to curb civilian deaths in Gaza.

On Thursday, Biden targeted “extremist settler violence” against Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden signed an executive order that “will allow the United States to issue financial sanctions against those directing or participating in certain actions, including acts or threats of violence against civilians, intimidating civilians to cause them to leave their homes, destroying or seizing property, or engaging in terrorist activity.”

Sullivan said the State Department would be issuing initial sanctions later Thursday.

Israel said Thursday its troops are battling Hamas militants across the Gaza Strip and killing dozens of fighters in central and northern Gaza, while Israeli airstrikes hit Khan Younis in the southern part of the strip.

The fighting went on as the negotiators for a proposed new cease-fire waited to hear of progress. The proposed agreement calls for a short-term halt in fighting between Israel and Hamas and the release of more hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

The outline for the proposal came out of talks in Paris among U.S., Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian officials earlier this week. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was expected to travel to Cairo to discuss the plan.

Asked about the details of the proposal during a briefing Wednesday at the White House, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said no pieces were final until the deal itself was finalized.

“I will tell you that, in broad strokes, we are looking at an extended pause is the goal,” Kirby told reporters. “How long? That's all part of the discussions, but longer than what we saw in November, which was about a week.”

More than 100 hostages taken by Hamas during its October 7 terror attack on Israel were released during the November cease-fire in exchange for 240 Palestinians jailed by Israel. Hamas is believed to still be holding another 100 or so hostages.

Kirby said it is possible to get more hostages out of Gaza if there is a longer cease-fire, and that a longer pause would also facilitate increasing the flow of humanitarian assistance for civilians in Gaza.

“We want to see this deal in place,” Kirby said. “We want to see it in place as soon as possible.”

Hamas has called for a permanent cease-fire and the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas, which governs Gaza and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Britain, the European Union and others.

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