International aid groups have warned of exacerbating an already grave humanitarian crisis in Gaza if an Israeli offensive on Rafah goes ahead, after Israel blocked the supply of essential aid and demanded thousands of people leave the city.

Already severely constricted by eight months of war on Palestine, the flow of emergency food and medicine into the Gaza Strip has ground to a halt after Israeli troops moved into Rafah this week and blocked traffic at two major border crossings.

After nearly three days of a disrupted flow of humanitarian convoys, aid workers have said warehouses will run out of flour and ready-to-eat meals within days.

An Israeli tank in Rafah in May 2024 IDF Spokesperson's Unit
An Israeli tank in Rafah in May 2024

The United Nations has only 15,000 litres of fuel left for both vehicles and generators in southern Gaza, including those in hospitals. According to Scott Anderson, senior deputy director at the UNRWA – the UN agency for Palestinians in Gaza – this is less than 10 per cent of the required daily demand.

Another UN official said humanitarian agencies had already started to ration their use of fuel, with stocks inside Gaza inaccessible due to storage facilities being dangerously close to the fighting, the official said.

Israel seized control of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Monday, and temporarily blocked the Kerem Shalom crossing on the Israeli side of the border.

Some trucks are having to enter through holes in the border fence at the Erez border crossing, a smaller entry point to northern Gaza from Israel. The Israeli military has said around 60 trucks entered the Gaza Strip on Tuesday through Erez, down from more than 500 by all routes before Israel’s war on civilians began on October 7.

Humanitarian aid entering Rafah in Gaza through Egypt Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Humanitarian aid entering Rafah in Gaza through Egypt

On Tuesday, the White House described the closures as “unacceptable”, after which Israeli officials declared Kerem Shalom reopened. However, UN officials suggested the gesture was insufficient, as only a small number of trucks were cleared to cross by Israel.

UNRWA director of external relations Tamara Alrifai fears the latest developments could lead to violence and unrest.

“A military incursion into Rafah could lead to a bloodbath because of how densely populated Rafah has become,” he said.

“Another looming displacement is already creating panic and anxiety among a highly vulnerable population.”

“This is extremely concerning as these are the only two crossings open for humanitarian access and commercial goods. If the crossings are closed, this means no commercial or humanitarian supply lines are active, so people in Rafah will not have access to humanitarian assistance. This means we can expect the famine to move south.”

An estimated 1.5 million people have been forced into the now densely overpopulated city of Rafah, after repeated Israeli evacuation orders forced them south towards areas previously marked as ‘safe zones’.

A reported rise in Israeli airstrikes on these zones were accompanied with orders demanding that an estimated 100,000 people leave eastern Rafah.

An ISRA-UK humanitarian aid truck loaded up for Gaza delivery via the Rafah borderISRA-UK
An ISRA-UK humanitarian aid truck loaded up for Gaza delivery via the Rafah border

“There’s 1.5 million people holed up in a very, very small area that’s very overpopulated,” said Saraya Hussain, Managing Director of ISRA-UK, a charity working on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“Gaza is known as the world’s largest open air prison, so we’ve got 1.5 million people with absolutely nowhere to go. The risk of loss of innocent civilian life is huge at the moment unfortunately.

“Rafah is one of the main points of entry for aid getting into Gaza, it’s one of the few so-called ‘safe zones’. If Rafah is bombed in the way that we think it will be, it will cause the whole infrastructure of humanitarian aid being able to get across the border to collapse.”

In a joint NGO statement urging a further Rafah assault to be prevented, UK-based charities working in the region said, “There are no safe spaces in Gaza. Israel has repeatedly attacked so-called ‘safe zones’, killing displaced people. Any claims from Israel that civilians can be safely relocated have no credibility.”

Supported by signatories including Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children, the statement continues: “The failure of our leaders to back words with meaningful action is glaring. As the 1.4 million people in Rafah face attacks that our leaders know would be catastrophic, they must finally act to stop the slaughter.

“The UK must work urgently to stop any further assault on Rafah from going ahead, demand an immediate lasting ceasefire, resume funding to UNRWA, and suspend arms sales to Israel for as long as there is a risk they may be used to violate international law.”

An earlier statement from Islamic Relief stated, “The area where people have been ordered to move – al Mawasi – has been designated a so-called ‘safe humanitarian zone’ but it is not safe.”

Saraya Hussain, managing director of ISRA-UK charity, a charity working on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territoriesSupplied
Saraya Hussain, managing director of ISRA-UK charity, a charity working in the occupied Palestinian territories

Authorised by the Rafah Ministry of Social Affairs, Birmingham-based charity ISRA-UK has already delivered several aid convoys into Gaza this year, continuing an ongoing commitment to Palestine spanning four decades.

Although fully aware of delays, blockades and the targeting of aid trucks by the Israeli military; director Saraya said the charity won’t be deterred in its mission.

“We’ve consistently been sending aid into Gaza since October. We have evidence of this, both from our partners on the ground and third party organisations as well.

“ISRA-UK has been working in Gaza for a very long time, and certainly since this current invasion has started. If we’re not able to get our aid in, alongside many other NGOs that are working in Gaza… if the incursion is to continue on the border at Rafah, then the flow of aid will certainly be jeopardised.

“There are no safe spaces for the people of Gaza and there are certainly no safe spaces for the people of Rafah, there is nowhere for them to go. So we call on our leaders and the international community to call for an immediate ceasefire.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv, Israel, 9 January 2024 Amos Ben Gershom / Govt Press Office of Israel
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv, Israel, 9 January 2024

Similarly undeterred, Hisham Mhanna of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said his organisation did not intend to move its operations out of Rafah, but it feared that an escalation would make it “difficult to help anyone”.

“There’s an increased burden on humanitarian workers, while the space for us to operate is shrinking,” he said.

“Providing a meaningful humanitarian response on the ground could become out of reach … the situation has become perilous in the areas receiving evacuation orders.”

The Palestinian death toll from Israel’s ongoing offensive on the Gaza Strip has surged to 34,844, the Health Ministry in the enclave said on Wednesday (9 May), with at least 78,404 people injured in the onslaught, the ministry said.

“Israeli attacks killed 55 people and injured 200 others in the last 24 hours,” the ministry revealed.

The estimated death toll is likely lower than the actual number, with Gaza’s health authorities confirming they can no longer count all their dead due to hospitals, emergency services and communications barely functioning.

WATCH | NGO charity director Saraya Hussain on Rafah emergency crisis:

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