Communications blackout, rising hunger compound suffering in Gaza on 11th week of war

‘We cannot communicate with our partners to deliver vital health services,’ aid group says

This picture taken early on December 16, 2023 shows a view of tents of Palestinians displaced by the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
This picture taken early on December 16, 2023 shows a view of tents of Palestinians displaced by the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — A prolonged communications blackout that severed telephone and internet connections has compounded misery in the Gaza Strip amid the Israel-Hamas war, as a United Nations agency said hunger levels have spiraled in recent days.

Internet and telephone lines went down Thursday evening and were still inaccessible Saturday morning, according to internet access advocacy group, hampering aid deliveries and rescue efforts as Israel’s war against Gaza’s ruling terror group stretched into the 11th week.

The blackout is the longest in the over-two-month war, said Alp Toker, the group’s director. The United Nations’ humanitarian affairs department said communications with Gaza were “severely disrupted” due to damage to telecommunications lines in the south.

“I cannot stress enough the dire consequences of this communications blackout on our ability to provide essential humanitarian aid,” Fikr Shalltoot, director of the Medical Aid for Palestinians group in Gaza, told The Associated Press from Egypt, where she is based. “We cannot communicate with our partners to deliver vital health services. We are unable to even check in with our colleagues, most of whom have been displaced from their homes and lost loved ones.”

The Israeli offensive was triggered by the unprecedented brutal October 7 Hamas assault on Israel, in which terrorists streamed across the border and killed about 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians slaughtered in their homes and at a music festival amid brutal atrocities, while taking more than 240 hostage. (It is believed that 129 hostages remain in Gaza now, not all of them alive.)

Israel’s more than two-month military campaign has claimed the lives of over 18,800 in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, which does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths. The number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include some 7,000 terror operatives as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.

The offensive has flattened much of northern Gaza and driven 85 percent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million from their homes. Displaced people have squeezed into shelters mainly in the south in a spiraling humanitarian crisis.

A picture taken from southern Israel on the border with the Gaza Strip shows Israeli tanks returning from northern Gaza on December 16, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Israel says it is making an effort to avoid harm to civilians while fighting a terror group embedded within the civilian population. It has long accused Gaza-based terror groups of using Palestinians in the Strip as human shields, operating from sites, including schools and hospitals, which are supposed to be protected.

Jerusalem has steadily allowed greater amounts of humanitarian aid into the Strip through Egypt and on Friday agreed for the first time since the war began to bring aid from its territory via the Kerem Shalom Crossing.

Residents in northern Gaza reported heavy bombing and the sounds of gun battles overnight and into Saturday in devastated Gaza City and the nearby urban refugee camp of Jabaliya.

These are areas from which Israel repeatedly urged civilians to evacuate during the first weeks of the war, and hundreds of thousands did so, but some have remained, either citing an inability to leave or a refusal to do so.

People mourn during the funeral of Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abu Daqa, who was killed during Israeli bombardment, in Khan Younis on the southern Gaza Strip on December 16, 2023 (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

“It was a violent bombardment,” Asad Abu Taha said by phone from the Shejaiya neighborhood, adding that contact with others was difficult because of the telecommunications interruptions. “We don’t know what’s happening.”

Another resident, Hamza Abu Seada, reported heavy airstrikes in Jabaliya, with non-stop sounds of explosions and gunfire.

An Associated Press journalist in southern Gaza also reported airstrikes and tank shelling overnight in the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.

With only a trickle of aid able to enter Gaza and distribution disrupted by fighting, the UN’s World Food Program reported a surge from 38% to 56% in the number of displaced households experiencing severe levels of hunger in the space of under two weeks. In the north, where aid has been unable to enter, “households… are expected to face a catastrophic situation,” the WFP said.

On Friday, an Israeli strike reportedly killed a Palestinian journalist and wounded another in the southern city of Khan Younis, both working for the Al Jazeera television network. The two were reporting at a school that had been hit by an earlier airstrike when a drone launched a second strike, the network said.

People stand near makeshift tents at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 16, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Dozens of mourners held funeral prayers for Samer Abu Daqqa outside Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, the Qatari network reported. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the cameraman was the 64th journalist to be killed since the conflict erupted. The others included 57 Palestinians, four Israelis and three Lebanese.

Khan Younis has been the main target of Israel’s ground offensive in the south.

Responding to accusations that it was deliberately targeting journalists, Israel’s military said it “takes all operationally feasible measures to protect both civilians and journalists. The IDF has never, and will never, deliberately target journalists.”

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has expressed unease over Israel’s failure to reduce civilian casualties and its plans for the future of Gaza, but the White House continues to offer wholehearted support with weapons shipments and diplomatic backing.

In meetings with Israeli leaders on Thursday and Friday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed a timetable for winding down the intense combat phase of the war. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was also expected to visit Israel soon to discuss the issue.

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