By Alexandra Mae Jones, CTVNews.ca writer
Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) — The largest United Nations group operating on the ground in the Gaza Strip said Sunday that it is unable to continue providing humanitarian assistance as an estimated one million residents in the north of Gaza struggled to flee south or find refuge ahead of a looming ground assault from Israel.
“I have called for this press conference to raise the alarm that as of today, my UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) colleagues in Gaza are no longer able to provide humanitarian assistance,” UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said.
“As I speak with you, Gaza is running out of water and electricity. In fact, Gaza is being strangled and it seems that the world right now has lost its humanity.”
This statement comes after the news that water has run out at numerous UN shelters. Israel cut off water, food, fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip earlier in the week after a devastating attack by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians. Hamas also took around 150 hostages.
In the days since the attack, Israel has bombarded Gaza with airstrikes. More than 2,600 Palestinians have been killed and 9,600 citizens have been injured, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.
UNRWA is the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, and has been operating temporary shelters out of schools it runs in order to aid those seeking safety or whose homes have already been destroyed by airstrikes sent from Israel. The agency also operates 22 health centres and 14 food distribution centres, but many of the health centres have been forced to close in the past week and all of the food distribution centres have been closed since Oct. 7, leaving nearly half a million people without their food rations.
“There is not one drop of water, not one grain of wheat, not a litre of fuel that has been allowed into the Gaza Strip for the last eight days,” Lazzarini said.
“The number of people seeking shelter in our schools and other UNRWA facilities in the south is absolutely overwhelming, and we do not have, anymore, the capacity to deal with them.”
More than 400,000 internally displaced people in Gaza have sought shelter in UNRWA schools and shelters so far.
Fourteen UNRWA staff members have been killed in the past week, Lazzarini said.
“They were teachers, engineers, guards and psychologists, an engineer and a gynecologist,” he said. “Most of our 13,000 UNRWA staff in the Gaza Strip are now displaced or out of their homes.”
In a video shared to X on Sunday, a UNRWA worker stationed at a centre in the city of Khan Younis said that 15,000 Palestinian refugees had come to this one centre alone.
“They left their homes, without food or drink — diabetics, children, even the disabled, babies, some of the children contracted smallpox,” Rawya Halas said in the video. “The centre cannot accommodate this number, neither in terms of food, bathrooms, water nor electricity.”
“Please save Gaza,” she begged through tears. “It’s dying, it’s dying, it’s dying.”
On Friday, Israel ordered residents in the north of Gaza to evacuate ahead of an expected ground invasion, prompting hundreds of thousands to flee. Others who are unable to evacuate have sought refuge in hospitals in the north, where staff are still attempting to care for patients who can’t be moved.
“Wars have rules. Civilians, hospitals, schools, clinics and United Nations premises cannot be a target,” UNRWA said in a statement on Saturday urging Israeli authorities to protect civilians. “UNRWA is sparing no efforts to advocate with parties to the conflicts to meet their obligations under international law to protect civilians, including those seeking refuge in UNRWA shelters.
“UNRWA shelters in Gaza and northern Gaza are no longer safe. This is unprecedented.”
UNRWA has been advocating for Israel to allow fuel into the region so that a water station and desalination plant in the south of Gaza can run again.
“Unfortunately, we still have no fuel,” Lazzarini said Sunday. “All parties must facilitate a humanitarian corridor so we can reach all those in need of support.”
U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday that Israeli officials informed him water had been turned back on in southern Gaza. The spokesman for Israel’s energy and water ministry, Adir Dahan, said water has been restored in one single location in southern Gaza, but aid workers say they have not seen evidence that water is flowing again anywhere in the region.
The regional head of the World Health Organization has called for Egypt to reopen the Rafah border crossing in order to allow medical supplies and humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. The crossing, which is the only way out of the blockaded region, was closed Tuesday after Israeli airstrikes hit close to Gaza’s side of the crossing.
Lazzarini said that unless new supplies are able to be brought into Gaza, aid workers will not be able to continue their operations.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza has been an issue for decades, with the impoverished region of 2.3 million relying on international aid long before this recent escalation in hostilities, Lazzarini said. Gaza has been under a blockade since 2007, when Hamas came into power. Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization by Canada.
“Before the war, Gaza was under a blockade for 16 years, and basically, more than 60 per cent of the population was already relying on international food assistance,” Lazzarini said. “It was already, before the war, a humanitarian welfare society.”
But for aid efforts in the region to be impaired to this degree is “unprecedented,” he said.
“Last week’s attack on Israel was horrendous – devastating images and testimonies continue to come out,” he said. “The attack and the taking of hostages are a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. But the answer to killing civilians cannot be to kill more civilians.”
With files from the Associated Press
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