Gaza’s health system is ‘on its knees’ as Israel pushes into Khan Younis

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JERUSALEM — International pressure on Israel to halt its war in Gaza intensified Sunday as Israeli tanks and troops pushed into the center of Khan Younis, the largest city in southern Gaza, and diplomats and U.N. officials gave increasingly dire warnings over the lack of food and mass displacement of nearly 2 million Palestinians.

“What we are seeing in Gaza is not just simply the killing of innocent people and the destruction of their livelihoods but a systematic effort to empty Gaza of its people,” Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said Sunday at the Doha Forum, a global policy conference in Qatar.

Safadi, whose nation signed a peace treaty with Israel, went on to denounce Israeli actions in Gaza as “within the realm of [the] legal definition of genocide,” Reuters reported, prompting Israel to condemn the remarks as “outrageous” and “false.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also reiterated his call for Israel to do more to protect civilians in Gaza as it pursues its military campaign against Hamas.

“We think there needs to be a premium put on protecting civilians and making sure that humanitarian assistance can get to everyone who needs it,” Blinken said during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“I think the intent is there, but the results are not always manifesting themselves,” he said.

But Blinken’s entreaties have done little to halt civilian suffering in Gaza, Palestinians say, and at the same time, the United States has boosted its military and diplomatic support for Israel.

In recent days, the Biden administration has vetoed a U.N. draft resolution demanding a humanitarian cease-fire and approved the sale of tank ammunition and related equipment to Israel, invoking an emergency declaration to bypass Congress.

The move came as the death toll in Gaza climbed to nearly 18,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which said Sunday that 297 people had been killed over the past 24 hours.

In a statement, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra described the situation at hospitals in the south as “catastrophic and unbearable,” saying “medical teams have lost control in the face of the huge numbers of wounded.”

Nearly 50,000 people have been injured in Gaza since the start of the war on Oct. 7, Qudra said, when Hamas staged a brutal attack inside Israel, killing at least 1,200.

At the World Health Organization on Sunday, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that Gaza’s health system was “on its knees,” and called for a cease-fire as “the only way to truly protect and promote the health of the people of Gaza.”

Other WHO officials, at a special session to address the crisis in Gaza, outlined the worrying signs of a system near collapse: new cases of acute jaundice and meningitis; the rapid spread of respiratory infections; bloody diarrhea; and patients dying because of severe medicine shortages.

Supporting Gaza’s health-care system is “almost impossible in the current circumstances,” Tedros said.

Later, the WHO’s executive board adopted a resolution calling for the “immediate, sustained and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief, including the access of medical personnel.”

As board members deliberated in Geneva, the United States said that it couldn’t “accept” the draft resolution, citing its “disappointment” that the text did not mention the Hamas attack against Israel. It did not oppose the motion.

The Israeli military has accused Hamas of using medical facilities as “command-and-control centers,” and put hospitals at the center of its campaign in northern Gaza. It has besieged and forcibly evacuated multiple health-care centers in the north, including Gaza’s main al-Shifa Hospital, but has so far provided little evidence to support its central claim that Hamas was using the facilities to direct operations against Israel.

“All of the hospitals in the north are out of service,” said Qudra, who was reached by phone on Sunday.

The Israel Defense Forces said Sunday that its forces were “fighting fiercely” in several locations, including Khan Younis in the south and Shejaiya and Jabalya in the north.

“These are the centers of gravity of Hamas,” IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a briefing Sunday.

He addressed the stream of images that have emerged in recent days from northern Gaza showing dozens of detainees stripped down to their underwear, some of them blindfolded and their hands zip-tied. Some friends and family members of the men shown in the photos have said they had no connection to Hamas or any armed groups.

“Not all of them are members of Hamas or terrorist organizations,” Hagari said of the detainees. But, he said, the IDF requires them to disrobe to prove they are not wearing explosive belts. “This is something we have been doing for years in combat.”

He added that the photos and videos were not formally published by the IDF. But the images, many of them aired and reported on by Israeli media, have raised concerns inside Israel.

The head of Israel’s National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, suggested Sunday that were would be no more photos of Gaza residents surrendering to IDF troops in their underwear.

“It doesn’t serve anything,” Hanegbi said in an interview with Israel’s Kan radio. “I think that you won’t be seeing images like this in the future.”

Mahmoud Almadhoun was detained by the IDF in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on Dec. 7 and said he was made to sit for hours on the ground in his underwear before Israeli troops tied his hands and loaded him and dozens of others into trucks.

“None of the people they detained were Hamas or any kind of fighters,” he said in an interview following his release.

“When we would ask for water they would curse at us,” he said. “When we would ask for food they would curse at us. They kept kicking us. We didn’t get any water. They would kick sand into our eyes.”

More than 90 percent of the population, or about 1.9 million people, have been displaced inside Gaza, according to the United Nations. An influx of families fleeing to Rafah, in the south, has overwhelmed aid agencies and local infrastructure. People are sleeping in the streets or makeshift encampments, with little to no food, water or sanitation, relief groups say.

Palestinians feel “completely abandoned” by the international community, Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees, said Sunday at the Doha Forum.

Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy on Sunday blamed the lack of aid on Hamas, which he said steals supplies from civilians, and on international agencies, which he said could not distribute relief as quickly as Israel was inspecting it for entry into Gaza.

“Israel has the capacity to inspect more trucks of food, water, medicines and shelters than are currently entering Gaza,” Levy said at a briefing.

“This crisis is not about the number of trucks going into Gaza. Israel has the obligation as the occupying power to ensure that sufficient hygiene and public health standards as well as the provision of food and medical care are available to the population under occupation,” Lynn Hastings, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the Palestinian territories, said in a statement Sunday. “Israel must allow the humanitarian community to deliver aid safely inside and throughout Gaza.”

Meanwhile, the Gaza Health Ministry and other medical workers said they were recording new cases of acute hepatitis, scabies, measles and upper respiratory infections, mostly among children.

Infectious diseases are spreading fast, said Imad al-Hams, a physician at the Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah, as people crowd into tiny slivers of land to escape advancing Israeli forces.

George reported from Doha, Harb from London and Balousha from Amman, Jordan.

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