By Bushra Batool
The blockade on Gaza imposed after Hamas came to power in the Gaza Strip in 2007 hampered the economic growth and freedom of 1.8 million people living in the strip. The situation worsened recently as a result of an armed conflict when Hamas launched attacks inside Israel on October 7, 2023, which was reciprocated by Israel’s military forces. This episode has intensified tensions in the Middle East and Gaza is bearing the brunt of it.
Gaza Strip hosts 8 refugee camps that were set up to house Palestinians who were displaced by two successive conflicts between Israel and the Arab world in 1948 and 1967 when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes. Out of 2.3 million people, 1.7 million are refugees, who live in or near these refugee camps.
Israel in the first week of the conflict ordered the relocation of 1.1 million Palestinians from the north to the south of Gaza with a 24-hour deadline. Hamas however termed the warning as fake propaganda and told residents in the north to stand firm. Since then, Israel has accelerated its air and ground strikes into northern Gaza, destroying infrastructure and connectivity with the rest of the world.
More than a million people have been displaced, and hundreds of houses destroyed in the besieged zone, which has been deprived of water, food, and other basic supplies. More than 70 percent of the Gaza enclave’s residents have been displaced by the war, many people say there is no safe place to live, not even the UN Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) schools, where families have sought shelter. The arrival of winter rains has brought new concerns for thousands of Palestinians who have lost their homes or fled to the south to escape military bombardment and are forced to live in flimsy tents.
The first humanitarian convoy crossed into Gaza via Rafah crossing on October 21. Pakistan has also extended its support and sent humanitarian and medical aid consignment twice to help them. The aid supplies going through Rafah crossing are just a fraction of what is actually needed to fulfill the needs of people strangled in war zones. According to reports, 53 trucks carrying food, medicine, health supplies, bottled water, and blankets entered the Rafah crossing in the first week of November, raising the total number of trucks entering Gaza since October 21 to 914, which is far below the required quantities to meet the needs of over two million people in the enclave. According to U.N. aid officials, at least 100 trucks a day should reach this land under occupation to meet the basic needs of life.
Prior to the war, some 400-500 trucks carrying aid and other goods used to enter Gaza through various routes every day. Israeli air raids continue to target areas across Gaza. The Jabalia refugee camp has been struck multiple times by Israeli air raids. According to Gaza’s Government Media Office, almost 200 people were killed and at least 777 wounded and 120 went missing in the first two bombings of the Jabalia camp in which Israel claimed to have killed two leaders of Hamas.
The Palestinians are subjected to the most heinous form of terrorism. UN rights office says Israeli attacks on Jabalia could be a ‘war crime’ amid growing horror at the rising number of civilians killed in this war. Instead of limiting the fighting to Hamas, unarmed civilians are killed alike mercilessly. Gaza’s residents are grappling with shortages of food and water while hospitals are overwhelmed amid bombings. Water and sanitation facilities, water wells, reservoirs, and pumping stations in Gaza have all been destroyed as a result of ongoing air attacks, resulting in a serious water shortage.
Water contamination in the Gaza Strip was already increasing the number of kidney patients by 13-14% every year, and this situation could further exacerbate kidney diseases. The Palestinian Red Crescent warned that Palestinian infants in Gaza are also suffering from dehydration due to the interruption of baby formula under the current siege. Airstrikes have directly damaged dozens of health facilities and hospitals, killing numerous healthcare workers and destroying ambulances. A vast number of displaced people, including pregnant women, injured people, and children, are sleeping on the streets.
According to the UN Population Fund, around 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza are unable to get health care due to the attacks on multiple hospitals. If the electricity goes out in a hospital, infants in incubators are in grave risk. Due to the shortage of body bags, people are storing dead bodies in ice cream trucks. On November 1, the Rafah crossing linking war-torn Gaza to Egypt opened for the first time in weeks as a result of a deal among Israel, Egypt, and Hamas, to evacuate foreign nationals and severely injured Palestinians. Hundreds of foreign nationals and dozens of injured have passed through since then.
More than 20,000 wounded people are still trapped in the Gaza Strip, according to Doctors without Borders (MSF), despite evacuations of foreign passport holders and badly injured Palestinians across the border to Egypt. So far, only foreign nationals living in Gaza are allowed to cross into Egypt. Many of them, having dual nationality or foreign passports were forced to say goodbyes to their loved ones who were prevented from crossing the border.
Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest medical complex in the Gaza Strip has been under siege by Israeli troops for several days now who claim to have found a 55-meter-long tunnel inside the hospital as a potential command center for Hamas operations. Many instances of raids were observed in the vicinity of the Al-Quds Hospital and Israeli authorities had warned The Palestinian Red Crescent to evacuate the facility. Prior to the siege, a statement released by one of the surgeons of Doctors without Borders (MSF) at Al-Shifa Hospital reflected the misery of staff and patients entangled in the hospital and notified about the presence of no food or water in the hospital.
Ventilators had stopped functioning, there were many bodies lying in front of the hospital gate, and ambulances sent to bring the patients were attacked. Several patients and premature babies died since the start of power outages, while critical infrastructure, including the cardiovascular facility and maternity ward, has been badly damaged, according to the UN agency. The World Health Organization (WHO) described the hospital as a ‘Death zone’ when a WHO-led team along with other UN officials managed to visit the hospital in the aftermath of Israel’s occupation of the hospital.
The team also witnessed a mass grave at the entrance of the hospital where more than 80 people were buried. The Director-General of WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus while expressing great concerns said that the hospitals that are supposed to be safe havens turned into scenes of death, devastation, and despair. So far, 108 UNRWA members have been killed since October 7 and the killing of Dima Alhaj, a 29-year-old WHO staff member, alongside her six-month-old child and husband among other family members, is a brutal attack on humanity.
Although an Israeli military spokesman suggested his forces would evacuate infants and get them to a safer hospital, those who were trying to leave are being shot by the Israeli forces surrounding the facility. In a recent development, however, Twenty-eight prematurely born babies were evacuated from Al-Shifa to Egypt for urgent treatment.
Hospitals enjoy special protection under the international laws of war and attacks on medical facilities, ambulances, or any attempt to cease medical operations are considered a war crime and can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). There is an exception however which maintains that if the hospitals are used for military operations that are harmful to the enemy, they lose the status of protection. Israel holds the claim that Al-Shifa has been used as a Centre point of Hamas’ operations and the presence of a tunnel is an evidence.
A video released shows the presence of an AK47 rifle among other ammunition and military equipment near the hospital’s MRI unit. Such claims are however refuted by Hamas and hospital staff. This asymmetric warfare has now reached a point where validation of Israel’s claims could rally international support against Hamas; otherwise, the former’s credibility could shatter immensely. Although Israel is pushing ahead with its ground invasion of Gaza with the goal of eliminating Hamas, what we see is that Gaza is devastated, the bloodshed of innocents is seen all around, residential buildings apart, and even hospitals are not spared and are blown to destruction. 22 out of 36 hospitals in Gaza are no longer operational amid heavy bombardment and ground operations in the enclave.
As of 21st November, 14,128 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, whereas the death toll of Israelis is recorded to be 1,200, according to the State of Palestine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, two-thirds of them are women and minors, and thousands are injured, many among them are at the brink of death. The world is quite vocal about this Palestinian genocide and demonstrations against Israel’s occupation and brutalities in Gaza are held all around the world, at least on a community level. In a virtual BRICS summit held recently, the group which is considered to be the ‘Global South’ denounced attacks on civilians and termed forced displacement of Palestinian people from Gaza or outside, a war crime.
Cyril Ramaphosa, South African President and the current Chair of BRICS, referred to Israeli aggression as a violation of international law and maintained that the collective punishment of Palestinian people is tantamount to genocide. Iran has reiterated its support to the Palestinian cause which is pivotal to Iranian foreign policy since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Although Iran’s military and financial support to Hamas is evident and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Hossein Salami’s indication of the great (unused) capacities left of the Muslim world to defeat Israel makes it straight, that any direct involvement of Iran in the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel is denied. China recently hosted a delegation of Muslim countries seeking a ceasefire. Although India historically maintains its support for the Palestinian cause; it seems that the country refrains from taking any partial position in this conflict as reflected by Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, appealing for a peaceful resolution through diplomacy. The fact is that India’s crackdown on pro-Palestine marches at home speaks for itself that the country does not want to hurt Israel’s interests not to displease the biggest benefactor of Israel, the US. In a significant development, Hamas and Israel’s government agreed on a 4-day ceasefire and a hostage deal on November 22, and the transference of hostages was expected to begin from November 23 but faced delays, as reported by November 23.
During a four-day pause in fighting, 50 and 150 hostages are set to be released from Hamas and Israel’s prisons respectively. The Qatar-mediated deal also provides that approximately 300-400 trucks would be allowed to enter Gaza for humanitarian aid per day.
Additionally, during the ceasefire, aerial surveillance of Israel is also supposed to be paused for six hours in Northern Gaza and completely in Southern Gaza. This is the first truce between the two conflicting parties since October 7, and the extension may be considered upon mutual consensus. The crisis has been ongoing for almost 8 weeks now. Although all the concerned parties welcomed this humanitarian truce but it needs to be seen to what extent it succeeds.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu categorically maintains that the war against Hamas would continue even after the ceasefire, until the group is eliminated and all hostages are returned. Hamas affirmed that in spite of striking a truce, our fingers would remain on the trigger and would retain the ability to defend our people and defeat the occupation.
The uncertainties in this Palestine-Israel war are still looming, though a short-term truce is agreed. The only way that could work out for lasting peace is that the pause in fighting must be observed and the conditions of the deal must be respected by both parties so as to make the deal workable.
The author is a Research officer at Rabita Forum International (RFI).