Israel agreed on Friday to let fuel trucks into Gaza and promised “no limitation” on aid requested by the United Nations, appearing to bow to international pressure after warnings that its siege of the Palestinian enclave would cause starvation and disease.
Israel said it had agreed to let in two truckloads of fuel a day at the request of Washington to help the United Nations meet basic needs, and spoke of plans to increase aid more broadly, including setting up field hospitals to treat wounded Gazans.
“We will increase the capacity of the humanitarian convoys and trucks as long as there is a need,” Col. Elad Goren, from COGAT, the ministry of defence agency that coordinates administrative issues with the Palestinians, told a briefing.
“Every list that we get from the UN will be delivered. We will check it and it will enter Gaza, so it’s up to the UN to give us those lists. And if there is a need for 400 trucks, tomorrow there will be 400 trucks. We are not limiting this issue. There is no limitation.”
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While Israel has promised to allow in aid in the past, the remarks appeared to signal a shift in tone after UN agencies warned that humanitarian conditions for 2.3 million Gazans were rapidly deteriorating, including a stark warning from the World Food Programme of the “immediate possibility of starvation”.
The move could open division in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline cabinet. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called the decision to allow in fuel a serious mistake.
“It conveys weakness, it gives oxygen into the enemy,” he said in a statement.
Israel’s military, which has concentrated its assault on northern Gaza, said its troops and war planes were keeping up pressure on Friday.
They took control of an Islamic Jihad commander’s stronghold, it said, and also killed Hamas fighters inside a school where they found a large number of weapons.
In other developments, Israel said its troops had found a tunnel shaft used by Hamas at Al Shifa hospital in the north of the Gaza Strip.
The hospital, packed with patients and displaced people and struggling to keep operating, has been a major focus of global concern this week. Israel says Hamas has stored weapons and ammunition and is holding hostages in a network of tunnels under hospitals like Shifa, using patients and people taking shelter there as human shields. Hamas has denied the assertion.
Gaza health authorities raised their death toll to more than 12,000 people confirmed dead, 5000 of them children, with many others trapped under rubble. The United Nations has deemed those figures credible, though they are now updated infrequently because of the difficulty collecting information.
Fuel shortages, communication breakdown
The conflict was triggered by a cross-border raid by Hamas militants on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people, including several Canadian citizens.
Israel has vowed to wipe out the militant group. Whole neighbourhoods of Gaza have been flattened in air and artillery strikes, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, and the humanitarian situation is catastrophic, aid agencies say.
The United Nations said there would be no cross-border aid operation on Friday due to fuel shortages and a communication shutdown. For a second consecutive day on Thursday no aid trucks arrived in Gaza due to lack of fuel for distributing relief.
WFP executive director Cindy McCain said nearly the entire population was in desperate need of food assistance.
“Supplies of food and water are practically non-existent in Gaza and only a fraction of what is needed is arriving through the borders,” she said in a statement.
“With winter fast approaching, unsafe and overcrowded shelters, and the lack of clean water, civilians are facing the immediate possibility of starvation,” McCain said.
Hamas denies hospital claims
The Israeli military’s chief of staff said Israel was close to destroying Hamas’s military system in the northern Gaza Strip and there were signs the army was taking its campaign to other parts of the coastal enclave of 2.3 million people.
Israel accused Hamas of preventing people from heading to the south of the Gaza Strip, which the militant group denied.
The army released a video it said showed a tunnel entrance in an outdoor area of Al-Shifa, Gaza’s biggest hospital.
The video, which Reuters could not immediately verify, showed a deep hole in the ground, littered with and surrounded by concrete and wood rubble and sand. It appeared the area had been excavated. A bulldozer appeared in the background.
The army said its troops also found a vehicle in the hospital containing a large number of weapons.
Al Shifa staff said a premature baby died at the hospital on Friday, the first baby to die there in the two days since Israeli forces entered. Three had died in the previous days while the hospital was surrounded.
Israel had said it would send help including incubators to rescue 36 babies being kept eight-to-a-bed since the neo-natal ward was knocked out last week. But staff said the Israelis allowed in no meaningful aid for the babies or hundreds of other patients and thousands of displaced people trapped there.
Five babies were in very serious condition, Al Shifa Hospital compound director Muhammad Abu Salmiya told Al Jazeera.
“We are trying to keep them alive, wrapping them in cellophane, putting bottles of hot water near them to keep them alive, our attempts are what is keeping them alive.”
Hamas said on Thursday that claims by the United States that the group uses Shifa for military purposes was “a repetition of a blatantly false narrative.”
Israeli officials had said Hamas held some of the 240 hostages taken by gunmen on Oct. 7 in the hospital complex.
On Friday, the Israeli military said soldiers retrieved the body of Noa Marciano, a female soldier who had been held captive, in a building near Shifa. The military had confirmed her death on Tuesday after Hamas issued a video of her alive followed by images of what it said was her body after she was killed in an Israeli strike.
West Bank death toll rising
Three Palestinians were killed in an Israeli drone strike early on Friday in the city of Jenin in Israel-occupied West Bank, the head of the Palestinian ambulance service said.
The Israeli army confirmed it had carried out an airstrike, saying it had killed at least five militants during fighting in Jenin, a focus of repeated recent clashes as tensions soar against the backdrop of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.
At least 178 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
“An armed terrorist cell that fired at Israeli security forces was struck by an IDF [Israel Defence Forces] aircraft. Additional terrorists who fired and hurled explosive devices at the security forces were neutralized,” the military said.
Hamas and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad said they had engaged Israeli forces for several hours in the streets of Jenin, unleashing heavy fire and laying ambushes with explosives.