RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — The World Food Program said Tuesday it has paused deliveries of food to isolated northern Gaza because of increasing chaos across the territory, hiking fears of potential starvation. A study by the U.N. children’s agency warned that one in six children in the north are acutely malnourished.

Entry of aid trucks into the besieged territory has been more than halved in the past two weeks, according to U.N. figures. Overwhelmed U.N. and relief workers said intake of trucks and distribution have been crippled by Israeli failure to ensure convoys’ safety amid its bombardment and ground offensive and by a breakdown in security, with hungry Palestinians frequently overwhelming trucks to take food.

The weakening of the aid operation threatens to deepen misery across the territory, where Israel’s air and ground offensive, launched in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, has killed over 29,000 Palestinians, obliterated entire neighborhoods and displaced more than 80% of the population of 2.3 million.

Heavy fighting and airstrikes have flared in the past two days in areas of northern Gaza that the Israeli military said had been largely cleared of Hamas weeks ago. The military on Tuesday ordered the evacuation of two neighborhoods on Gaza City’s southern edge, an indication that militants are still putting up stiff resistance.

Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Feb. 16, 2024. International aid agencies say Gaza is suffering from shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies as a result of the war between Israel and Hamas.
Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Feb. 16, 2024. International aid agencies say Gaza is suffering from shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies as a result of the war between Israel and Hamas.

The north, including Gaza City, has been isolated since Israeli troops first moved into it in late October. Large swaths of the city have been reduced to rubble, but several hundred thousand Palestinians remain largely cut off from aid.

They describe famine-like conditions, in which families limit themselves to one meal a day and often resort to mixing animal and bird fodder with grains to bake bread.

“The situation is beyond your imagination,” said Soad Abu Hussein, a widow and mother of five children sheltering in a school in Jabaliya refugee camp.

Ayman Abu Awad, who lives in Zaytoun, said he eats one meal a day to save whatever he can for his four children.

“People have eaten whatever they find, including animal feed and rotten bread,” he said.

Slide Into Hunger

The World Food Program said it was forced to pause aid to the north because of “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order.”

It said it had first suspended deliveries to the north three weeks ago after a strike hit an aid truck. It tried resuming this week, but convoys on Sunday and Monday faced gunfire and crowds of hungry people stripping goods and beating one driver.

WFP said it was working to resume deliveries as soon as possible. It called for the opening of crossing points for aid directly into northern Gaza from Israel and a better notification system to coordinate with the Israeli military.

It warned of a “precipitous slide into hunger and disease,” saying, “People are already dying from hunger-related causes.”

UNICEF official Ted Chaiban said in a statement that Gaza “is poised to witness an explosion in preventable child deaths, which would compound the already unbearable level of child deaths in Gaza.”

The report released Monday by the Global Nutrition Cluster, an aid partnership led by UNICEF, found that in 95% of Gaza’s households, adults were restricting their own food to ensure small children can eat, while 65% of families eat only one meal a day.

More than 90% of children younger than 5 in Gaza eat two or fewer food groups a day, known as severe food poverty, the report said. A similar percentage are affected by infectious diseases, with 70% experiencing diarrhea in the last two weeks. More than 80% of homes lack clean and safe water.

In Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, where most humanitarian aid enters, the acute malnutrition rate is 5%, compared to 15% in northern Gaza. Before the war, the rate across Gaza was less than 1%, the report said.

A U.N. report in December found that Gaza’s entire population is in a food crisis, with one in four facing starvation.

Drop In Aid Trucks

Soon after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Israel blocked entry of all food, water, fuel, medicine and other supplies into Gaza. Under U.S. pressure, it began to allow a trickle of aid trucks to enter from Egypt at the Rafah crossing, and in December opened one crossing from Israel into southern Gaza, Kerem Shalom.

The trucks have become virtually the sole source of food and other supplies for Gaza’s population. But the average number entering per day has fallen since Feb. 9 to 60 a day from more than 140 daily in January, according to figures from the U.N. office for humanitarian coordination, known as OCHA.

Even at its height, U.N. officials said the flow was not enough to sustain the population and was far below the 500 trucks a day entering before the war.

The cause of the drop was not immediately clear. For weeks, right-wing Israeli protesters have held demonstrations to block trucks, saying Gaza’s people should not be given aid. U.N. agencies have also complained that cumbersome Israeli procedures for searching trucks have slowed crossings.

But chaos within Gaza appears to be a major cause.

Moshe Tetro, an official with COGAT, an Israeli military body in charge of civilian Palestinian affairs, said the bottleneck was because the U.N. and other aid groups can’t accept the trucks in Gaza or distribute them to the population. He said more than 450 trucks were waiting on the Palestinian side of Kerem Shalom crossing, but no U.N. staff had come to distribute them.

Eri Kaneko, a spokesperson for OCHA, said the U.N. and other aid groups have not been able to regularly pick up supplies at the crossing points because of “the lack of security and breakdown of law and order.” He said the Israeli military has a responsibility to facilitate distribution within Gaza, and “aid piling up at the crossing is evidence of an absence of this enabling environment.”

In a rare public criticism of Israel, a top U.S. envoy, David Satterfield, said this week that its targeted killings of Gaza police commanders guarding truck convoys have made it “virtually impossible” to distribute the goods safely.

Besides crowds of Palestinians swarming convoys, aid workers say they are hampered by heavy fighting, strikes hitting trucks and Israeli failure to guarantee deliveries’ safety. The U.N. says that from Jan. 1 to Feb. 12, Israel denied access to 51% of its planned aid deliveries to north Gaza.

No End In Sight

The war began when Hamas-led militants rampaged across communities in southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostage. The militants still hold some 130 captives, around a fourth of whom are believed to be dead.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said it had confirmation that Hamas started delivering medications to the hostages, a month after the medications arrived in Gaza under a deal mediated by the Gulf state and France. The deal provides three months’ worth of medication for chronic illnesses for 45 of the hostages, as well as other medicine and vitamins, in exchange for medicines and humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza.

Israel has vowed to expand its offensive to Rafah, where more than half of the territory’s population of 2.3 million has sought refuge from fighting elsewhere.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said Tuesday that the total Palestinian death toll since Oct. 7 had risen to 29,195. The ministry does not differentiate between fighters and civilians in its records, but says women and children make up two-thirds of those killed. Over 69,000 Palestinians have been wounded, according to the ministry.

Israel says it has killed over 10,000 Palestinian militants but has provided no evidence for its count. The military blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because the militant group fights in dense residential neighborhoods. The military says 237 of its soldiers have been killed since the start of the ground offensive in late October.

Magdy reported from Cairo.

Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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