Gaza death toll nears 30,000 as UN warns of ‘imminent’ famine

29 Feb, 2024

GAZA STRIP: Fighting raged Wednesday in the Gaza Strip, where the reported death toll in the almost five-month Israel-Hamas war neared 30,000 as mediators insisted a truce could be just days away.

The Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry reported another 91 deaths in overnight Israeli bombardment, while UN agencies sounded the alarm on dire humanitarian conditions and looming famine in Gaza’s north.

Mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been seeking a six-week pause in the war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which in response vowed to eliminate the Palestinian Islamist group that rules in Gaza.

While Israel’s plans for post-war Gaza exclude any mention of the Palestinian Authority, its top ally the United States and other powers have called for a revitalised PA to take charge of the territory as well as occupied the West Bank.

On Wednesday, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said a “technocratic” Palestinian government without Gaza’s rulers Hamas was needed to “stop this insane war” and facilitate relief operations and reconstruction.

His government, based in the West Bank, resigned this week, with prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh citing the need for change after the war ends.

“The time now is not for a national coalition government” that may include Hamas and president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party, which controls the PA, he said.

A government that includes Hamas would “be boycotted by a number of countries, as happened before,” Maliki told a news conference in Geneva.

“Hamas should understand this, and I do believe that they are in support of the idea to establish, today, a technocratic government” for a period of “transition”, he said.

After a flurry of diplomacy, mediators said a truce deal could finally be within reach — reportedly including the release of some Israeli hostages held in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 attack in exchange for several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel.

The Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed at least 29,954 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest health ministry figures.

It was launched in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Qatar was “hopeful, not necessarily optimistic, that we can announce something” before Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said.

His remarks came after US President Joe Biden expressed hopes that “by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire”, but, he added, “we’re not done yet”.

Doha has suggested the pause in fighting would come before the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month which starts on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

Short of the complete withdrawal Hamas has called for, a source from the group said the deal might see Israeli forces leave “cities and populated areas”, allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians and humanitarian relief.

In a sign of growing desperation among Gazans over living conditions, a rare protest was held Wednesday in the far-southern city of Rafah, packed with nearly 1.5 million Palestinians — many of them displaced by the fighting.

“The situation is very difficult in Gaza. We can’t afford things,” said Rafah resident Abdulrahman Abu Khuder at the rally over soaring prices of basic commodities.

Khamis Shallah, displaced from Gaza City, said one kilo of sugar now costs “between 80 and 100 shekel ($22-28), and the price of yeast in 100 shekel”.

The Hamas government should “interfere” to ensure ordinary Palestinians have basic supplies, he said, but “they don’t care”.

While hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled south since the start of the war, those who remain in the territory’s north have faced an increasingly desperate situation, aid groups have warned.

“If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza,” the World Food Programme’s deputy executive director Carl Skau told the UN Security Council Tuesday.

His colleague from the UN humanitarian office OCHA, Ramesh Rajasingham, warned of “almost inevitable” widespread starvation.

The WFP said no humanitarian group had been able to deliver aid to the north for more than a month, accusing Israel of blocking access.

Most aid trucks have been halted, but foreign militaries have air dropped supplies over southern Gaza.

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