October 18, 2023

IntelBrief: Approaching the Abyss: The Humanitarian Crisis in the Gaza Strip

AP Photo/Fatima Shbair

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Amidst devastating Israeli airstrikes and a full blockade of Gaza preventing the passage of critical supplies, civilians in Gaza are facing a burgeoning humanitarian crisis and are dangerously close to running out of water.
  • An evacuation order for the over one million residents of northern Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces has displaced hundreds of thousands and strained supplies.
  • The United States is spearheading an international diplomatic effort to ease humanitarian suffering in Gaza.
  • The untenable conditions and well-documented human suffering inside Gaza, coupled with little success in alleviating those conditions thus far, could fuel instability in the broader region and the West.

Palestinian health officials said yesterday that an Israeli airstrike hit Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, killing more than 500 people, just hours before U.S. President Joe Biden was set to visit Israel. Images of dead bodies and rescue workers attempting to save the injured were circulating on international media, instigating protests and demonstrations in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Türkiye, and Yemen. In Amman, protesters attempted to storm the Israeli embassy. There were also protests in various European cities. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has canceled a scheduled meeting with Biden. Later on, the Jordanian Foreign Minister said there would be no visit for Biden, announcing that a previously planned summit between Jordan, Egypt, the PA, and the U.S. President was canceled. Numerous countries in the region released statements condemning the attack on the hospital, including several countries that are signatories of the Abraham Accords, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. According to the Wall Street Journal, Palestinian Authority Civil Defense Spokesman Mahmoud Basal was quoted as saying, “The massacre at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital is unprecedented in our history…While we’ve witnessed tragedies in past wars and days, but what took place tonight is tantamount to genocide.” The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) denied responsibility for the airstrike and blamed it on an errant rocket from Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

Amidst Israel’s airstrikes and blockade of the Gaza Strip – which is preventing the passage of key supplies – a burgeoning humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Gaza. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has warned that Gaza is “running out of life,” as essential supplies of food, water, fuel, and medicine are reaching critical lows. The entire Gaza Strip is in danger of running out of water, and many have resorted to drinking from polluted sources, according to the UN, risking an increase in waterborne illnesses. Overcrowded hospitals and diminished medical supplies, which aid groups have thus far been unable to resupply due to the blockade, will only be further strained by the clean water shortage. Dwindling fuel not only reduces hospitals’ ability to operate, but the resource is also needed to operate water pump stations and desalination plants. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, at least 2,778 people have been killed, and 9,938 people have been injured in Gaza since Hamas attack killed approximately 1,400 Israelis and took nearly 200 people hostage on October 7. The death toll in Gaza has mounted to the point where the territory is running out of body bags, according to UNRWA.

Compounding the humanitarian crisis, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) issued a 24-hour evacuation order for the approximately 1.1 million people in northern Gaza – nearly half of the territory’s entire population – on October 13, ahead of an expected ground invasion in the coming days. The World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed the evacuation a “death sentence for the sick and injured” with the head of the UNRWA warning the evacuation will push people in Gaza “into the abyss.” The evacuation order has displaced hundreds of thousands of people from northern Gaza, with many crowding into schools, hospitals, and the homes of friends and family, with many others sleeping out in the open on the streets – even as Israeli airstrikes continue. The order has precipitated the already dwindling resources and supplies resulting from Israel’s siege of Gaza.

Even for those complying with the evacuation order, the chaos of war has rendered safety elusive. A convoy of civilian evacuees was hit by an airstrike while heading from northern to central Gaza along an Israeli-designated “safe route.” Hamas officials said the strike killed 70 and injured 200, mostly women and children. Hamas has blamed Israel for the attack, although the IDF has denied its munitions contributed to the strike. While some five hundred thousand Palestinian civilians have evacuated the northern area, many others have chosen not to evacuate, either out of a belief that the south would be no safer than the north, or out of concern that they would not be allowed to return to their homes, recalling the Palestinians’ original 1948 mass displacement from what is now Israel. Despite direct orders from Israel, Al Quds Hospital in Gaza City, as well as other hospitals in the northern territory, have said they will not evacuate patients. Yesterday’s airstrike on the Al-Ahli Baptista Hospital reportedly killed hundreds and left many others trapped underneath rubble. The complexity of evacuating many critically ill and fragile patients – including those in intensive care or on life support, newborns in incubators, those undergoing hemodialysis, women with complications during pregnancy, and others – could lead to imminent deterioration of their conditions or even death, according to the WHO. Even when possible, transporting patients is a severe challenge, as some ambulances have been bombed and destroyed in airstrikes, according to the Gazan health ministry. The Gazan government says 16 medics have been killed since Israel began its bombardment.

As conditions inside Gaza continue to deteriorate rapidly, aid groups are positioning themselves to respond quickly if humanitarian access is restored. Yesterday, approximately 160 trucks filled with Egyptian aid moved closer to the Rafah border from al-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, where hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid have reportedly been waiting for a delivery agreement. No agreement has yet been reached to deliver the aid, and the Palestinian side of the border crossing remains closed due to airstrikes. Early yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had agreed with Israel to “develop a plan” to get humanitarian aid into Gaza. Concerns that the aid could be used as cover to transport weapons or seized or destroyed by Hamas reportedly hampered a planned delivery earlier this week. World leaders and government officials – including Pope Francis, Canadian President Justin Trudeau, Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena, and Ukraine’s foreign ministry –  have called for Israel to establish a humanitarian corridor to allow aid into the territory, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the European Union would launch a humanitarian air corridor into Gaza via Egypt this week. Meanwhile, a UN Security Council Resolution proposed by Russia to establish a humanitarian ceasefire, which omitted any mention of Hamas, failed to pass Monday after France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States voted against it.

The untenable conditions and well-documented human suffering inside Gaza, coupled with little success in alleviating those conditions thus far, could fuel instability in the broader region and the West. Tens of thousands demonstrated last Friday across the Middle East in support of Palestinians and against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. In Beirut, the waving of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Hezbollah flags by Hezbollah supporters was punctuated by chants supporting Gaza and calling for “death to Israel.” In Baghdad, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square for a protest organized by Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shia cleric. In Germany and France, pro-Palestinian protests have been banned, and several Western countries have stepped up security at synagogues and Jewish schools as fears that the palpable tensions could lead to violence. Pro-Palestinian protest marches with hundreds of people have taken place throughout the United States, from New York City to San Diego, and in some instances, scuffles broke out between pro-Palestinian activists and pro-Israeli counter-protestors, including on some college campuses. Although the protests have largely been organized by left-leaning groups and Islamic political organizations, the pro-Palestinian cause has even been coopted by some white supremacists and figures on the far-right. An increase in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rhetoric tied to the events in Israel and Gaza has FBI officials and police on high alert for violence. The brutal murder of a six-year-old Muslim boy in Illinois, as well as the fatal stabbing of a teacher in northeastern France in what the government is calling a terrorist attack, both indicate that the roiling conflict between Israel and Hamas – and the actions taken in Gaza – will have an impact far beyond the Strip.