ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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UN: Gaza’s Rafah is ‘pressure cooker of despair’; 17,000 kids separated from families

Agencies say civilian costs continue to grow; more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are sheltering in and around Rafah, the final major area where IDF has yet to tackle Hamas

Displaced Palestinians walk in a puddle in rainy weather to get food rations at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 2, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Mohammed ABED / AFP)
Displaced Palestinians walk in a puddle in rainy weather to get food rations at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 2, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Mohammed ABED / AFP)

GENEVA, Switzerland — The United Nations humanitarian office on Friday voiced concern about the hostilities in Khan Younis that have forced more people to flee to Rafah in the far south of Gaza, describing the border town as a “pressure cooker of despair.”

The comments come as Israel prepares to advance its war on Gaza farther south, close to the Egyptian border, where most Gazans have sought refuge from the Israeli offensive.

“I want to emphasize our deep concern about the escalation of hostilities in Khan Younis, which has resulted in an increase in the number of internally displaced people seeking refuge in Rafah in recent days,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are sheltering in the Rafah area, mainly cold and hungry in makeshift tents and public buildings.

Israel is continuing to hunt Hamas’s leadership in the area, believed to be hiding deep within the vast tunnel network the terror group dug under the Strip, which military officials assess runs for hundreds of miles.

“Rafah is a pressure cooker of despair, and we fear for what comes next,” Laerke said.

Gaza residents have said Israeli forces pounded areas around hospitals in Khan Younis, and stepped up attacks close to Rafah. Israel says Hamas often operates from around and within medical centers and other supposedly civilian sites.

Displaced Palestinians walk next to tents in rainy weather at a makeshift camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 2, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Mohammed ABED / AFP)

“Khan Younis has also come increasingly under attack, and it’s been shocking to hear about the heavy fighting in the vicinity of the hospitals, jeopardizing the safety of medical staff, the wounded and sick, as well as thousands of internally displaced people seeking refuge there,” Laerke said. “Agencies are indeed struggling to respond under these circumstances.”

In separate comments, UNICEF said it estimated that 17,000 children in Gaza were unaccompanied or have been separated from their families during the conflict, which began on October 7 when Hamas terrorists burst into Israeli communities and slaughtered 1,200 Israelis, abducting 253 others to Gaza.

It said that nearly all children in the enclave were thought to require mental health support.

“They present symptoms like extremely high levels of persistent anxiety, loss of appetite. They can’t sleep, they have emotional outbursts or they panic every time they hear a bombing,” said Jonathan Crickx, UNICEF’s chief of communication for the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“Before this war, UNICEF was considering already that 500,000 children were in need of mental health and psychosocial support in Gaza. Today, we estimate that almost all children are in need of that support, and that’s more than 1 million children,” he said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed Thursday that the Israeli military will reach and dismantle Hamas’s Rafah Brigade, just as it is currently working to do to Hamas’s battalions in the Khan Younis area.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks with Israeli soldiers at a staging area not far from the Israeli-Gaza border, October 19, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Gallant stated that ongoing operations have severely weakened the terror group’s ability to wage war and that the pressure will force it to agree to release hostages it kidnapped during their October 7 attack on Israel.

“Hamas’s Khan Younis Brigade boasted that it would stand against the IDF, now it’s falling apart, and I am telling you here, we are completing the mission in Khan Younis and we will also reach Rafah and eliminate everyone there who is a terrorist who is trying to harm us,” Gallant told troops of the IDF’s 98th Division during his visit to Khan Younis Wednesday.

International mediators are making efforts to reach a deal between Israel and Hamas that would see at least some of the hostages held in Gaza returned in exchange for a weeks-long truce and the release of Palestinian security prisoners. If an agreement is reached, it would be the first time captives are released since a week-long truce in November, when 105 captives were freed from captivity.

War erupted between Israel and Hamas with the terror group’s October 7 massacre. Some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists slaughtered 1,200 people in southern Israel that day — most of them civilians, massacred amid brutal atrocities — and seized 253 hostages, 132 of whom are still held.

Vowing to destroy the terror group, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza.

Israeli tanks at the border with the Gaza Strip on February 2, 2024 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that some 27,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and is believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed some 10,000 Hamas terrorists in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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