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‘Operation Al-Aqsa Flood’ Day 163: Top EU Official Says Israel Failed To Prove Accusations Against UNRWA

Above photo: Relatives of the Al-Tabatibi Family, who were killed in an Israeli airstrike, mourn as they receive the bodies of their loved ones from the morgue of Al-Aqsa Martyts Hospital in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on March 16, 2024. Ali Hamad/APA Images.

Netanyahu has vowed to invade Rafah despite the international red line.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has sanctioned two illegal settler outposts in the West Bank for the first time.

Casualties

  • 31,645 + killed* and at least 73,676 wounded in the Gaza Strip.
  • 435+ Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.**
  • Israel revises its estimated October 7 death toll down from 1,400 to 1,147.
  • 591 Israeli soldiers killed since October 7, and at least 3,221 injured.***

*Gaza’s Ministry of Health confirmed this figure on Telegram channel. Some rights groups put the death toll number closer to 35,000 when accounting for those presumed dead.

** The death toll in West Bank and Jerusalem is not updated regularly. According to PA’s Ministry of Health on March 17, this is the latest figure.

*** This figure is released by the Israeli military, showing the soldiers whose names “were allowed to be published.”

Key Developments

  • Israel’s PM Netanyahu says the army “will operate in Rafah” as international and U.S. officials warn of invading the southernmost Gaza district, where at least 1 million Palestinians have been displaced to.
  • WHO chief says “further escalation of violence in [Rafah’s] densely populated area would lead to many more deaths and suffering, especially with health facilities already overwhelmed.”
  • According to Al-Jazeera Arabic, clan chiefs in Gaza and UN officials deliver aid following directions issued by Hamas security agencies asking Palestinians not to gather near areas where aid trucks arrive due to frequent Israeli attacks on crowds seeking aid.
  • Euro-Med chairman says instruction from Gaza police to people to back off when aid deliveries arrive “was met with full commitment from the population.”
  • Israel tries to create authority in the Gaza Strip in place of Hamas, by using humanitarian aid as a tool to strengthen and push some clan leaders to the front seat.
  • EU’s top humanitarian aid official says Israel did not present any evidence of claims against UNRWA to him or any official at the EU executive or to any other donor.
  • EU official, Janez Lenarcic, says more aid is needed to enter the Gaza Strip by trucks, and Israel should open additional land crossing points.
  • Armed clashes intensify in Al-Zahraa City, south of Gaza, as Israel finishes building a fortified highway, effectively splitting the enclave in two, from the north to the south.
  • Mahmoud Nofal, 42, succumbs to his wounds after armed clashes with Israeli soldiers stationed near Al-Shuhada street in Hebron.

Netanyahu Vows To Invade Rafah Despite International Red Line

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have spent their first week of Ramadan under Israeli bombardment and with little food and drink, which has led to the death of dozens of children from malnutrition and dehydration.

In the past 24 hours, Israeli forces committed nine massacres in various areas of the Gaza Strip, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health on Telegram, killing at least 92 people and injuring 130. Thousands remain under the rubble of bombed buildings.

For the 1.2 million Palestinians in Rafah, an Israeli ground invasion of the southernmost town of the Gaza Strip is imminent.

Israeli forces had expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, under heavy bombardment and fire, from areas in the north and central Gaza to Rafah, which at one point was designated by Israel as a “safe zone”. Many in Rafah have been left to sleep in UN school shelters and in tent cities.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is adamant that he will press ahead with an offensive on Rafah, despite alleged tensions with the US administration over such a plan. Still, the U.S. has refused to draw a hard red line when it comes to an invasion of Rafah, with the Biden administration saying Israel must only ensure“the protection of Palestinian civilians.”

“There is international pressure to prevent us from entering Rafah and completing the work. As prime minister of Israel, I reject this pressure,” Netanyahu told soldiers at the Ofer military base last week.

On Sunday morning, Netanyahu told ministers in the “war cabinet” that the army “will operate in Rafah. This is the only way to eliminate the rest of Hamas’s murderous battalions, and this is the only way to apply the military pressure necessary to release all our abductees.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), said on Saturday evening that “further escalation of violence in this densely populated area would lead to many more deaths and suffering, especially with health facilities already overwhelmed.”

Ghebreyesus added that the 1.2 million Palestinians in Rafah “do not have anywhere safe to move to” and that they cannot reach fully functioning health facilities in the Gaza Strip, as most of them are partially operational or out of service due to Israeli aggression.

“Many people are too fragile, hungry, and sick to be moved again,” Ghebreyesus wrote on X.

Israel said that it is planning to move the 1.2 Palestinians in Rafah to “humanitarian islands” it is creating in central Gaza ahead of an offensive on Rafah, with Netanyahu saying on Sunday that he approved a plan to move Palestinian civilians out of the “battle zones” in Rafah.

Several UN officials warned of a bloodbath in Rafah if Israel launched an assault on the area.

Aid Deliveries Reach North Gaza

Overnight, aid deliveries arriving in north Gaza were unloaded in a center belonging to the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) to distribute it to people.

According to Al-Jazeera Arabic, local clan chiefs in Gaza and UN officials managed to deliver the aid following a directive issued by Hamas security agencies asking Palestinians not to gather near Kuwait roundabout or Salah El-Din Street, where aid trucks typically arrive.

Israeli forces have routinely targeted Palestinians who gathered to get food in these areas in recent weeks, killing hundreds. Due to immense food shortages and a crippled aid distribution system,crowds of starving Palestinians have been forced to to climb on trucks to get their share while risking Israeli bullets or being crushed by crowds.

Rami Abdullah, the chairman of the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in Geneva, wrote on X platform that for the past 160 days “the [Israeli] occupation army has been targeting members of the police and civil services in Gaza to create a state of chaos and cast doubt on its control.”

He added that instruction from Gaza police to people to back off when aid deliveries arrive “was met with full commitment from the population… these agencies succeeded, for the first time, in securing the entry of some humanitarian needs to reach the northernmost point” of the Gaza Strip.

“We all realize that there is no party capable of controlling security except the youth of Gaza and its free men who are committed to serving their people and preserving their blood and sacrifices,” he added.

The news of a successful coordination between local clans and UN agencies comes amidst reports that Tel Aviv is reportedly trying to create an authority in the Gaza Strip in place of Hamas. One of Israel’s means of achieving this, reports say, is by using the food and aid deliveries as a tool to strengthen and push some clan leaders to the front seat and put them in charge of handling the aid, coordinating with Israel and the international agencies.

Last week, several Palestinian clans in the Gaza Strip affirmed their position that they refuse to be “an alternative political regime” in the Gaza Strip, and coordinate humanitarian missions with Israel.

EU Says Israel Did Not Present Evidence Against UNRWA

UNRWA has been vital in providing humanitarian services to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but the agency was stripped of nearly $450 million of funding after top donors including the U.S. suspended payment in January in the wake of Israeli allegations against the agency.

Israel has accused the UN agency of employing over 450 “military operatives” from Hamas and other resistance groups, alleging that a dozen of them took part in the October 7 attack on Israel — a claim Israel has yet to back up with concrete evidence.

Since the initial withdrawal of funding, several countries, including Australia, Sweden and Canada have resumed their donation pledges to UNRWA as they have not seen any evidence backing Israel’s accusations.

UNRWA’s initial investigations have also found that some of its staff in Gaza were severely tortured and abused by Israeli forces and were forced into making false confessions to support Israel’s claims that the agency’s staff have ties to Hamas.

The EU’s top humanitarian aid official, Janez Lenarcic, has confirmed that Israel did not present any evidence of the claims against UNRWA to him or any official at the EU executive or to any other donor.

The EU said early in March that it is going to pay $55 million in donation to UNRWA but will hold back nearly $35 million until the investigation into Israel’s allegations is resolved.

“Even if those allegations, at the end of the day, prove to be true, that doesn’t mean that UNRWA is the perpetrator,” Lenarcic said.

“UNRWA has reacted properly, immediately, effectively. It took several measures. There is an investigation. There is a review. We are satisfied so far with all this,” Lenarcic added.

UNRWA has already fired nine of those employees, and is investigating the case of one. The remaining two staff members included in Israel’s allegations, were killed during the October 7 attack.

“UNRWA has of course a critical role to play here because it has unmatched infrastructure, warehouses, shelters, logistical capacities,” he said.

Lenarcic said more aid needs to enter the Gaza Strip by lorries and Israel should open additional land crossing points.

He added that the U.S. maritime corridor set from Cyprus to Gaza is “although a welcome addition, can only complement the land routes.”

“You cannot in current circumstances provide sufficient supplies by maritime routes or airdrops because there is no real port [in the Gaza Strip],” he added.

Israel Bombs Central Gaza, Clashes With Fighters In The North

Israel has continued its aerial campaign on the Gaza Strip, bombing several areas across the besieged enclave overnight. In Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, an Israeli airstrike on a house of the Thabet family in the Bishara neighborhood killed at least 11 people, Wafa news agency reported.

Israeli forces also bombed the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, north of Rafah, and Gaza City’s Al-Shejaiya neighborhood in the north.

In al-Zahraa City in north Gaza, footage of armed clashes between Palestinian resistance fighters and Israeli forces were released by the Hamas armed wing Izz El-Din Al-Qassam Brigades. Palestinian fighters shot several Israeli tanks and armored vehicles with Al-Yaseen 105mm anti-tank shells.

Al-Zahraa is a highly symbolic city as it was built in 1997 in response to Israel’s plan to build an illegal settlement on Abu Ghoneim mount near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

It is among the first and few projects built by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Gaza Strip as hopes ran high for establishing a Palestinian state in the 1990s. It is located south of Gaza City and is the home for the supreme court, two universities and several municipal departments.

Armed clashes escalated in the past week as Israel is finishing building a fortified highway, south of Al-Zahraa City, which now reaches to the Mediterranean coast. The corridor will split the Gaza Strip into two, between the north and south, and would further cement Israeli military control in the Strip and restrict the movement of Palestinians and the ability of Gazans to return to their homes in the north.

Israeli Forces Kill Palestinian In Hebron; U.S. Sanctions West Bank Settlers

In the occupied West Bank, Mahmoud Abdel Hafez Youssef Nofal, 42, succumbed to his wounds after an armed clash with Israeli soldiers stationed near al-Shuhada street in Hebron.

Nofal was the imam of Al-Qasim Mosque in the city. He approached Israel soldiers from the Islamic cemetery of Hebron, near the Karantina area and Al-Shuhada street before being shot.

Israeli authorities are still detaining his body. On Saturday, Israeli forces set up military checkpoints on the main roads leading to Hebron, and later raided Nofal’s home in the al-Shaaba neighborhood. Since October, Israeli forces and settlers have killed 435 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, according to the PA’s Ministry of Health.

Israel has also arrested 7,605 Palestinians in the West Bank since October. On Saturday, it arrested 65 workers in Yaffa (Jaffa) and 36 of them remain under investigation, according to Wafa. Israeli forces also arrested Palestinians from Jenin, Hebron, Qalqilya and Bethlehem overnight.

Israeli settlers launched two attacks on Palestinians near Nablus. In Burin, south of Nablus, they threw stones on Palestinian houses and fired bullets in the air with no injuries reported, while in Ain Duma, they threatened Palestinians of expelling them from the area, Wafa reported.

Some of those settlers have been put under U.S. Department sanctions, which also put two illegal outposts, Moshes Farm and Zvis Farm, on the list. This is the first time the U.S. punishes an entire Israeli outpost with economic restrictions. In occupied Jerusalem, 60,000 Palestinians performed Ramadan’s Al-Tarawih prayer in Al-Aqsa Mosque on Saturday night. Israeli authorities are still limiting the numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem. Wafa reported that Israeli forces set up at least 30 makeshift checkpoints in the outskirts of the Old City, at the city’s gates and the entrances of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

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