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‘Extraordinary, deep anxiety’ in Gaza over feared Rafah attack   

People in Rafah in the south of Gaza collect drinking water.
People in Rafah in the south of Gaza collect drinking water.

‘Extraordinary, deep anxiety’ in Gaza over feared Rafah attack   

Peace and Security

Ordinary Gazans remain in a “constant state of trauma” over an impending full-scale Israeli attack on the enclave’s southernmost city of Rafah amid a growing number of strikes there, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said on Tuesday.

“There is an extraordinary, deep anxiety prevailing right now in Gaza because the question everybody asks is whether, yes or no, there would be a military offensive,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told journalists in Geneva.

Following several reports by the UN aid coordination office, OCHA, of “intensive strikes on Rafah” that caused dozens of fatalities, Mr. Lazzarini said a full-scale invasion of Rafah – currently home to around one million displaced Gazans – depended on “whether or not a ceasefire deal will be reached this week”.

Despite renewed international pressure for a humanitarian pause, including from the United States, no breakthrough in negotiations has yet been announced.

Hunger still a huge threat

In the meantime, Gaza’s hunger crisis has not gone away, the UNRWA chief said, pointing to "a spreading hunger and a looming famine", especially in the northern part of the enclave. 

“The good news is that my colleagues have reported that there is more food available in the market – so increase the availability – but it still does not mean that the food is accessible just because there is absolutely no cash circulating in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.”

Safe water emergency

Echoing concerns in a regular update on the crisis, OCHA noted that the situation remains dire in Rafah, where residents “face severe challenges in accessing basic services such as healthcare, clean water and sanitation facilities”.

The UN aid coordination office added that the coastal water board had warned that the entire water and sanitation system was “nearing collapse”. 

To address rising needs for safe drinking water, the Gazan utility and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) unveiled a solar-operated water desalination station in Rafah last week. It can produce enough potable water for 400 families at a school sheltering displaced people. 

To help meet still-desperate nutrition needs, UNICEF and more than a dozen humanitarian partners have also expanded outpatient treatment services for acutely malnourished children to more than 100 sites across Gaza, including more than 50 in Rafah and three dozen in the north.

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Some aid relief progress

In a glimmer of good news, Mr. Lazzarini said that more humanitarian supplies have entered the enclave in past weeks than in previous months, but it is “still far from enough to reverse the negative trend we have seen”.

UNRWA’s requests to send aid convoys continue to be “systematically denied” by Israel, he continued, adding that the laborious process of having to unload and reload supplies to allow for inspection increased delays that were already impacted by operating hours of the crossing into Gaza that vary “from one day to another”.

Bodies ‘dumped’

The crossing into Gaza could also be closed at a moment’s notice and “many times a week” by the Israeli authorities, the UN official said, “because they are just dumping released detainees or dumping sometimes (Palestinians’) bodies who have been taken to Israel and back to the Gaza Strip”.

After renewing his call in common with the UN Secretary-General for the “unconditional and immediate release” of all Israeli hostages still held in Gaza, the UNRWA chief underscored deep concerns for all Gazans detained by the Israeli Security Forces.

Citing testimonies of released detainees, Mr. Lazzarini explained that they described being “routinely rounded up, stripped to their underwear and loaded into trucks, blindfolded and bound”.

Once arrested, the detainees remained incommunicado and faced “shocking inhumane treatment, including waterboarding, severe beatings, attacks by dogs and being forced to hold that stress position for hours, sometimes 12 hours, 24 hours”. 

Detainees who Israel suspected of Hamas affiliation were also forced to wear a diaper instead of being able to go to the toilet and were also “pressured” to state that UNRWA was “politically affiliated” in the Gaza Strip, in violation of its neutral status.

182 fallen staff

Gazan health authorities report that at least 34,500 Palestinians have been killed and more than 77,700 wounded in Israeli attacks since 7 October. To date, 182 UNRWA staff have been killed and more than 160 of the agency’s premises have been damaged or totally destroyed, the Commissioner-General reported.


“Most of these premises were sheltering displaced people and more than 400 people have been killed in these premises,” he said, before condemning the use of these facilities for military purposes after they were vacated, many in northern Gaza. 

This “blatant disregard of the United Nations” must be investigated once the war ends to prevent it becoming the “new standard” in warfare, Mr. Lazzarini insisted.

Defending UNRWA

Turning to unproven allegations of Hamas collusion involving UNRWA staff, the Commissioner-General repeatedly stressed the agency’s neutrality, backed by the recently published findings of the Colonna inquiry, and noted that a separate UN investigation into 19 individuals had completely cleared one staff member of any wrongdoing and had been paused into four other cases, since no further information had been provided to justify the accusations.

Speaking in French to reject serial, unfounded allegations that have circulated since the outbreak of hostilities that hundreds of UNRWA staff were members of armed groups, Mr. Lazzarini said “for the moment, these were just 'statements' lacking any substantiating information."

ICJ rejects petition to censure German arms exports

In a related development on Tuesday, the UN’s top court rejected a call to take action against Germany over the country’s arms exports to Israel.

Nicaragua had petitioned the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue “provisional measures”, alleging “Germany’s participation in the ongoing plausible genocide and serious breaches of international humanitarian law and other peremptory norms of general international law occurring in the Gaza Strip”.

The ICJ ruled against the measure by 15 to one, indicating in a short statement that “the circumstances” of the case as presented to the court “are not such as to require the exercise of its power under Article 41 of the Statute to indicate (the implementation of) provisional measures”.

The court, which is based in The Hague, recently issued provisional measures against Israel, in a case brought by South Africa, in response to a request from South Africa, which accused Israel of genocide in Gaza.

The ICJ ordered Israel to take “all necessary and effective measures to ensure, without delay, in full cooperation with the United Nations, the unhindered provision at scale by all concerned of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians throughout Gaza”.