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Gaza battles rage as Israel vows to shut out UN agency after war

By AFP - Jan 27,2024 - Last updated at Jan 27,2024

A man looks through the window of a building damaged by Israeli bombing in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday (AFP photo)

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories — Intense fighting raged on Saturday in the Gaza city of Khan Yunis, the main theatre of conflict where the Israeli forces is targeting the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas.

The unabated hostilities came a day after the UN's International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled Israel must prevent possible acts of genocide in the conflict but stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.

Tensions rose between Israel and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees after Israel alleged several UNRWA staff were involved in the Hamas attack of October 7, leading some key donor countries to suspend funding.

Foreign minister Israel Katz said on Saturday that Israel wants to ensure the UN agency, with tens of thousands of staff in the territory, "will not be a part of the day after" the bloodiest ever Gaza war.

Alarm has grown over the plight of civilians in Khan Yunis, the southern hometown of Hamas's Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, the suspected mastermind of the October 7 attack.

AFPTV images showed thousands of civilians, among them women and children, fleeing the city on foot as an Israeli tank loomed behind them.

"They besieged us, so we fled," said Tahani Al Najjar, who left Khan Yunis with her daughter. "We call on the UN to intervene, to stop the war. Enough of fear and terror!"

Gaza civil defence spokesman Mahmud Bassal said the displaced endured incessant cold rain and warned of the “spread of contagious diseases”.

The health ministry in Gaza said at least 135 people were killed in Khan Yunis overnight.

The Hamas government said “massive tank bombardment” targeted a refugee camp in the city and its Nasser hospital.


Patients trapped 


With Gaza’s humanitarian crisis growing, the UN says most of the estimated 1.7 million Palestinians displaced by the war are crowded into Rafah on the southern border with Egypt.

At Khan Yunis’s Nasser Hospital, the largest in the besieged city, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said surgical capacity was “virtually non-existent”.

The charity said the hospital’s services had “collapsed” and the few staff who remained “must contend with very low supplies that are insufficient to handle mass casualty events”.

World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said 350 patients and 5,000 displaced people remained at the hospital as fighting continued nearby.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said Israeli tanks targeted the Al Amal hospital, another of the city’s few remaining medical facilities, and that it was “under siege with heavy gunfire”.

“There is no longer a healthcare system in Gaza,” MSF said.

There were 300 to 500 patients trapped at the Nasser hospital with “war-related injuries such as open wounds, lacerations from explosions, fractures and burns”.

The Israeli military accuses Hamas of operating from tunnels under Gaza hospitals and of using the medical facilities as command centres.


UN sacks staff 


Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, accused the WHO this week of collusion with Hamas by ignoring Israeli evidence of Hamas’s “military use” of Gaza hospitals.

Tedros rejected the accusation, saying it could “endanger our staff who are risking their lives to serve the vulnerable”.

Relations between Israel and UNRWA soured further after the UN body said tanks had shelled one of its shelters in Khan Yunis on Wednesday, killing 13 people.

UNRWA said on Friday it had sacked several employees accused by Israel of involvement in the October 7 attack.

The allegations have prompted the United States, Canada, Australia and Italy to suspend funding to the agency.

Israel said it would seek to stop UNRWA from operating in Gaza after the war. Hamas urged the international community to ignore Israel’s “threats”, while the Palestinian Authority said the agency needed “maximum support” from donors.

Diplomatic efforts have sought scaled-up aid deliveries for Gaza and a truce, after a week-long cessation of hostilities in November saw Hamas release dozens of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

CIA chief William Burns is to meet with his Israeli and Egyptian counterparts, as well as Qatar’s prime minister, in the coming days in Paris to seek a ceasefire, a security source told AFP.

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