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Gaza's humanitarian situation worsens as Egypt continues Rafah stranglehold

Rafah remains closed despite promises as aid groups struggle to cope
A young man in the rubble of al-Faruk Mosque, whose dome carries graffiti identifying the mosque and the date of its destruction, 22 July (AA)

There is “literally no safe place for civilians” in the Gaza Strip, the United Nations warned on Tuesday as the Palestinian death toll rose above 625.

The warning came hours before Israeli shells struck Maghazi Preparatory Girls’ School in central Gaza, a UN-run facility where around 300 internally displaced Gazans were sheltering.

No one was seriously injured in the strike, although the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) slammed the attack for endangering the lives of its staff.

Israel insists that it is not purposefully targeting civilians and asserts that Hamas is hiding rockets and ammunition in civilian structures, making them legitimate targets.

UNRWA said on Tuesday that it found a hidden rocket cache in an abandoned school and "strongly and unequivocally" condemned whichever party had placed the rockets there.  

Irrespective of this, however, the increasing targeting of schools and hospitals, has sparked growing international concern. 

Since the outset of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge on 8 July, 25 health facilities in the Gaza Strip have been targeted, and 18 of these were damaged, according to the World Health Organisation.

On Monday five people were killed and 70 injured when an Israeli strike hit al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Gaza, according to Palestinian medical officials. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross quickly condemned the attack “in the strongest terms”, with Amnesty International calling for international action to stop the fighting on both sides and urging the UN to impose an arms embargo on Israeli and Palestinian authorities alike.

Free access to aid

The numbers of those internally displaced in the Strip continue to rise, with over 118,000 people now taking refuge at 77 UN-run shelters across Gaza, shelters that have been left struggling to cope with the influx.

The UNRWA on Tuesday launched a $115 m emergency appeal to provide essentials like emergency food and water, as well as “therapy for tens of thousands of traumatised children.”

Though the UN is issuing urgent calls for aid, several aid groups have complained that they are struggling to get humanitarian supplies into the Strip.

The Rafah crossing with Egypt has been at the centre of the controversy, with Egyptian authorities largely keeping the crossing closed.

Despite hopes that Rafah would be opened on Tuesday, the crossing remained shut according to Palestinian officials.

“Egyptian authorities are until now refusing entry to any Palestinian citizen through the Rafah border crossing,” a spokesperson for the Palestinian Interior Ministry said on Tuesday.

The Palestinian ambassador to Cairo had said on Monday that he had reached a deal to open Rafah to allow patients and foreign passport holders to leave.

However, while the gates were briefly opened, supply trucks and Palestinians were not permitted to leave, Interior Ministry spokesperson Ayad al-Buzm said.

Egyptian authorities also blocked entry of European-Palestinian medical staff trying to access Gaza.

Mohamed Abu Nada, coordinator for the delegation of Palestinian doctors in Europe, said:

“For the fifth day in a row, the Egyptian army has prevented the delegation of Palestinian doctors in Europe from crossing the Rafah border and entering Gaza."

“This is despite the delegation having all the necessary paperwork from the Egyptian authorities, especially the intelligence services.”

Gaza’s already frail infrastructure has been hard-hit by the Israeli operation, now in its sixteenth day.

According to the UN, at least two-thirds of Palestinians in Gaza have either no or very limited access to drinking water, although some aid groups have said this figure could be as high as 90 percent.

Many sewage facilities are also reportedly overflowing or have stopped working.

Power outages are extremely frequent, with the majority of Gaza only receiving power for three hours a day.

(Photo Credit: MEE / Jonathan Rashad)

Doctors condemn Gaza violence

Two dozen European doctors who have previously worked in Gaza expressed their outrage in a leading medical journal on Tuesday at the plight of the wounded and ill in the conflict.

"Before the present assault, medical stock items in Gaza were already at an all time low because of the blockade. They have run out now,” the group of 20 doctors from Italy, Britain and Norway wrote in The Lancet.

"Wounded and sick people cannot leave easily to get specialised treatment outside Gaza. Entries of food and medicines into Gaza have been restricted and many essential items for survival are prohibited."

Along with the shelling of hospitals, the group voiced concern about allegations of "threats to the medical personnel in emergency services and denial of entry for international humanitarian convoys," wrote the group.

"We as scientists and doctors cannot keep silent while this crime against humanity continues."

They urged other medics to speak out, expressing dismay that "only five percent of our Israeli academic colleagues signed an appeal to their government to stop the military operation against Gaza.”

"We are tempted to conclude that with the exception of this five percent, the rest of the Israeli academics are complicit in the massacre and destruction of Gaza."

The letter was signed by five leading medics on behalf of 24 doctors.

France takes a new line

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius slammed Israel’s response to rocket fire in a televised interview on Tuesday, after Israel announced that 27 of its soldiers and two civilians have been killed since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge.

 “It’s unacceptable that a country be threatened by rockets, but the response has to be proportionate.”

As the death toll of Palestinians passed 625, the majority of whom are thought to be civilian casualties, Fabius said that the huge number of fatalities is “obviously something that we cannot accept.”

His comments represent a marked change in France’s official stance – at the outset of the operation, French President Francois Hollande steered clear of mentioning Palestinian casualties, instead slamming Hamas for “aggressions” against Israel.

The pictures below show deadlock at the Rafah crossing on 19 July, as it remained resolutely closed in the face of calls from Palestine.

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