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We are on the 'verge of collapse', running out of body bags: Head of UN agency for Palestinian refugees

United Nations/Jerusalem: The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, which has the largest UN footprint in the Gaza Strip, has warned that it is on the “verge of collapse” and was even running out of body bags amidst the raging conflict between Israel and the Hamas militants.

“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,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said on the situation in the Gaza Strip on Sunday.

“Gaza is now even running out of body bags. Entire families are being ripped apart,’ he said.

Addressing a press conference at UNRWA headquarters in East Jerusalem, Lazzarini said his colleagues in Gaza are no longer able to provide humanitarian assistance.

“The number of people seeking shelter in our schools and other UNRWA facilities in the South is absolutely overwhelming, and we do not have any more the capacity to deal with them,” he said.

“In fact, an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding under our eyes.”

“The UNRWA operations is the largest United Nations footprint in the Gaza Strip, and we are on the verge of collapse. This is absolutely unprecedented,” Lazzarini said.

Israeli soldiers have amassed near Gaza ahead of an expected ground offensive targeting Hamas militants, who launched an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7.

Israel has told 1.1 million Palestinians living in the north of Gaza to move south ahead of the possible ground operations.

Detailing the plight and hardships in UNRWA schools and buildings, Lazzarini said sanitary conditions are just appalling.

“We have reports in our logistics base, for example, where hundreds of people are just sharing one toilet. Unless we bring supplies into Gaza, UNRWA and aid workers will not be able to continue humanitarian operations.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Sunday that for the fifth consecutive day, Gaza has been under a full electricity blackout, following Israel’s halt of its electricity and fuel supply to the strip on October 7, which in turn triggered the shutdown of Gaza’s sole power plant.

Essential service infrastructure is currently operational via backup generators.

Fuel reserves at hospitals are not expected to last longer than 24 hours and the shutdown of backup generators would place the lives of thousands of patients at immediate risk, OCHA said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that “hospitals in Gaza risk turning into morgues without electricity”.

As of October 13, as many as 144 educational facilities, including 20 UNRWA schools, had been hit by airstrikes.

Two of the facilities struck by the airstrikes were used as emergency shelters for internally displaced persons.

As many as 165 Palestinian Authority (PA) schools, one of which was destroyed, were also hit by the strikes.

Water and sanitation facilities have also been severely damaged. As of October 12, at least six water wells, three water pumping stations, one water reservoir, and one desalination plant serving over 1,100,000 people were damaged, OCHA said.

Lazzarini said that Gaza is running out of water, and “Gaza is running out of life’.

‘Soon, I believe, with this there will be no food or medicine either. 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,” he said.

As of October 14 in the afternoon hours, an estimated 600,000 people are displaced to the southern half of Gaza, with about 300,000 people situated in UNRWA designated emergency shelters (DES), and the rest in public facilities and with host families.

Since then, this figure has increased significantly. The number of internally displaced persons in Gaza City and northern Gaza cannot be determined due to insecurity and constant movement of people, the UN said.

Following Israel’s ultimatum on Friday that Palestinians in Gaza relocate to the strip’s south, Lazzarini said his team has relocated to Rafah to sustain operations and is working in the same building as thousands of desperate displaced people rationing also their food and water.

He voiced deep concern that every hour, the agency is receiving more and more desperate calls for help from people across the Strip.

“The siege in Gaza, the way it is imposed, is nothing else than collective punishment,” he said.

“So, before it is too late, the siege must be lifted and aid agencies must be able to safely bring in essential supplies such as fuel, water, food and medicine,” he said, adding: “We need this now.” UNRWA itself has already lost 14 staff members, including teachers, engineers, guards and psychologists, an engineer and a gynaecologist.

“Most of our 13,000 UNRWA staff in the Gaza Strip are now displaced or out of their homes,” he said.

Lazzarini shared harrowing accounts of tragedy and death faced by the agency’s staff and ground personnel.

“My colleague Kamal lost his cousin and her entire family. My colleague Helen and her children were pulled out of the rubble. I was so relieved to learn that they were still alive. My colleague Inas fears that Gaza will no longer exist,” Lazzarini said, adding that “every story coming out of Gaza is about survival, despair and loss”.

Lazzarini described last week’s attack on Israel as “horrendous” and said the attack and taking of hostages are a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.

‘But the answer to killing civilians cannot be to kill more civilians. Imposing a siege and bombarding civilian infrastructure in a densely populated area will not bring peace and security to the region,” Lazzarini stressed.

The war has become the deadliest of five Gaza wars for both sides, with more than 4,000 dead.

The Gaza Health Ministry said 2,670 Palestinians have been killed and 9,600 wounded.

More than 1,400 Israelis have been killed, and at least 155 others, including children, were captured by Hamas and taken into Gaza, according to Israel.

(Published 16 October 2023, 06:01 IST)

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