While Hamas hoards Gaza’s resources, civilians face humanitarian crisis

Over 800,000 displaced Gazans are sheltering in schools and makeshift camps, facing food and water shortages, while terrorists continue operating in underground tunnels

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A Palestinian woman hangs laundry washed using sea water due to the lack of fresh water and electricity, along the beach in Deir el-Balah in the southern Gaza Strip on October 29, 2023. (Photo by Mahmud HAMS / AFP)
A Palestinian woman hangs laundry washed using sea water due to the lack of fresh water and electricity, along the beach in Deir el-Balah in the southern Gaza Strip on October 29, 2023. (Photo by Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

The UN Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA, announced this week that “Gaza is facing a humanitarian catastrophe,” as it runs out of essential supplies such as food, water, medicine and fuel.

Since the outbreak of the war between Hamas and Israel on October 7, over 800,000 Gazans have been displaced out of a total population of over 2.1 million. In the early days of the conflict, the Israeli army issued evacuation orders for 1.1 million residents in the north of the Strip, where most of Hamas’s infrastructure is concentrated, to minimize civilian casualties as the IDF hunts down operatives of the terror group.

Israel has imposed a blockade of fuel imports into the Strip, arguing that Hamas uses it to operate its weapons system and maintain its underground tunnels, and has limited the entry of other supplies. It has also denied that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but on October 21 it began to allow limited deliveries of food and medical supplies into the Strip from Egypt.

Over the past two weeks, only about 374 trucks with food and medicines have entered the Strip, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. In normal times, there would be about 450 each day. Meanwhile, clean water supply from Israel has been intermittent.

Clean water is beginning to run out after Israel reduced the daily supply from 49 million liters before October 7 to 28.5 million liters — or just about half. The last remaining seawater desalination plant, out of the four serving central and southern Gaza, shut down on October 15 due to lack of fuel, presenting a risk of dehydration as people resort to drinking contaminated water or digging wells in the ground.

UNRWA warned on Wednesday that there is a “serious concern” of waterborne diseases due to the collapse of sanitation services and the scarcity of water.

A boy stands carrying a plastic jerrycan filled with water as others fill up more buckets with a hose along an alley in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 1, 2023. (Photo by Mohammed ABED / AFP)

Many Gazans have not been able to shower for weeks. Some women have resorted to washing their clothes in the sea, and to taking period-delaying pills to avoid the discomfort of menstruation in unsanitary circumstances, as pharmacies run short of sanitary pads, according to a report in Al Jazeera.

The enclave is also running short on food. On October 29, UNRWA reported that thousands of desperate Gazans broke into several of its warehouses in the Strip, stealing wheat, flour, hygiene supplies and other basic goods, an incident that the agency’s Operations Director Tom White described as “a worrying sign that civil order is starting to break down.”

Meanwhile, Hamas has been hoarding Gaza’s resources to continue its military campaign against Israel. The IDF said on October 24 that Hamas possesses vast fuel reserves of about half a million liters, a claim that was confirmed by Western and Arab officials to The New York Times.

A senior Lebanese official told the newspaper that Hamas has enough supplies to sustain fighting for three to four months without a need for resupply. The terror group has also allegedly been stockpiling food, keeping it from Gazan residents who are in desperate need.

Reports have emerged that the group has also stolen humanitarian aid delivered to UNRWA.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, a prominent member of Hamas’s political bureau, declared on Friday that the terror group, which has ruled the territory since 2007, is not responsible for protecting the Strip’s civilians, and said that the extensive 500 km (310 mile)-long tunnel network underneath Gaza is only for the protection of Hamas terrorists.

A woman walks carrying an infant in the playground of a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) that has been converted into a shelter for displaced Palestinians in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 25, 2023. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

Many displaced Gazans from the north of the Strip have found shelter with family members in the south, with dozens of people crammed inside single apartments.

The UN agency has provided shelter for over 670,000 of the internal refugees in 150 of its schools, as many Gazans consider them safe places from bombardments. Living conditions in these overcrowded facilities are dire, however, with poor sanitation and little to no privacy, posing the risk of an outbreak of contagious disease, in a region where the health system has all but collapsed.

Furthermore, UN schools are not entirely safe from the conflict. On October 17, UNRWA reported that a school hosting 4,000 displaced people in central Gaza’s al-Maghazi refugee camp was hit during an Israeli airstrike, killing six.

The UN agency has also set up a makeshift encampment in Khan Younis, in the south of the enclave, to host Gazan families from the north. About 800 people have found temporary shelter in 100 tents, and have been surviving on aid provided by locals and limited donations provided by the few NGOs that are still operating in the area.

Conditions in the camp are barely above survival, with portable toilets and no proper sanitary or cooking facilities. Families have resorted to making food over campfires.

An UNRWA representative denied in an interview with +972 Magazine that the agency has established a new refugee camp in the Strip, after being rebuked by a Hamas official that the encampment was reminiscent of the Palestinian refugee camps of 1948.

About 80% of the population of the enclave — 1.7 million out of 2.1 — is composed of descendants of refugees who escaped from the territory of today’s Israel during the 1948 war that saw Israel’s establishment, an event which Arabs refer to as the “nakba,” or catastrophe.

Many in 1948 fled voluntarily, after being promised by Arab armies that launched the war that they would return to their homes within a few days, while others were forcefully expelled by the Haganah, the military force of the Jewish state.

Residents of the new camp vehemently rejected proposals by Israeli politicians to relocate to Egypt, and insisted that they would not be subjected to a “second nakba” and would not leave Gaza.

And Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, has said it will not accept an influx of Palestinian refugees, fearing Israel will not allow them to return to the Strip after the war. On Wednesday, the Rafah crossing between the two territories was opened for the first time since the outbreak of the war to allow about 90 wounded Palestinians to be treated in Egyptian hospitals in the Sinai Peninsula, with the promise that they would be allowed back into Gaza. Hundreds of foreign passport holders were also permitted to leave.

In an interview with official Palestinian news agency Wafa, a woman named Asma Obaid, who arrived in the camp from Gaza City, recounted stories she’d heard from her parents who fled Ashkelon in 1948, and lived first in tents and then in makeshift metal shacks. “We teach our children about the Nakba and our right of return,” she said, reiterating the Palestinian demand that descendants of refugees will one day be allowed to resettle in Israel, “and now they are living the Nakba themselves.”

A UN-provided tent camp for Palestinians displaced in the conflict between Hamas and Israel in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, on October 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The war was sparked on October 7, when some 3,000 terrorists led by Hamas burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The vast majority of those killed as terrorists seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 people were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.

According to the Hamas-run health ministry, more than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, and more than 22,000 people have been wounded. The figure, which could not be confirmed, would be without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Hamas has been accused by some of artificially inflating the death toll, and does not distinguish between civilians and terror operatives. Some of the dead are believed to be victims of Palestinian terrorists’ own misfired rockets.

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