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UN warns Rafah attack would be ‘nail in coffin’ of Gaza aid as deliveries halve

The amount of aid reaching Gaza fell by half in February from the month before, the UN has said, as its secretary general, António Guterres, said that an Israeli assault on Rafah would be “the nail in the coffin” of deliveries to the starving territory.

“February registered a 50% reduction of humanitarian aid entering Gaza compared to January,” Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said in a statement on X. “Aid was supposed to increase not decrease to address the huge needs of 2 million Palestinians in desperate living conditions.”

The decline was caused by obstacles including regular closures of crossing points, lack of security due to military operations, the collapse of civil order and lack of political will, he said.

Israel’s military had drawn up a plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah, and get more aid into northern Gaza, its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement released in the early hours of Monday.

That could be a nod to US demands that Israel put forward plans to protect civilians before it sends troops into Rafah, a southern border city that has become the only limited refuge from the fighting across Gaza and now shelters almost 1.5 million Palestinians.

Guterres said Rafah was “the core of the humanitarian aid operation” for Palestinians already weakened by hunger, lack of medicine and clean water, and months of displacement into tent cities, and a military operation would make aid delivery almost impossible.

“An all-out Israeli offensive on the city would not only be terrifying for more than a million Palestinian civilians sheltering there, it would put the final nail in the coffin of our aid programmes,” he told the UN human rights council in Geneva on Monday.

There are already severe shortages of basic necessities across Gaza, with aid agencies reporting “pockets of famine”, and deliveries to northern Gaza halted this month after the collapse of civil order.

Aid agencies say their operations have been further hampered by the visa policies of Israeli authorities. UN agencies say their staff have recently been given visas for just one or two months.

Israel’s population and immigration authority has refused to grant work visas to employees of international non-governmental organisations that operate in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Haaretz reported.

A ceasefire and hostage release deal feels closer than it has done for weeks, after negotiators hammered out the outlines of an agreement between Hamas and Israel that could halt fighting for six weeks, a top US official said at the weekend. On Monday Israeli officials headed to Qatar, where Hamas has its political office, to work on terms, Reuters said.

In a sign that western-backed Palestinian leaders may be open to changes demanded by the US, which wants a reformed Palestinian Authority to control Gaza, the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said on Monday his government was resigning.

He said at a cabinet meeting that the move aimed to allow a broad Palestinian consensus about political arrangements “that take into account the new reality in the Gaza Strip”, the Associated Press reported.

The resignation must be accepted by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who may ask Shtayyeh to stay on as caretaker until a replacement is appointed.

The plan for getting more aid into northern Gaza announced by Netanyahu would involve opening a new crossing in the north, local media reported, probably one at Karni. However, that checkpoint has been closed for nearly two decades, meaning it would probably need major infrastructure work to handle significant quantities of aid.

Fighting and destruction across the north make it even harder to deliver any supplies there than in areas around Rafah, where Palestinians are struggling to survive in tented cities that have sprung up.

Any evacuation plan for an offensive would force civilians who sought refuge there to make a difficult and dangerous journey north, in a weakened condition, to set up new shelters in an even harsher landscape of destruction.

However, Netanyahu said over the weekend that even a ceasefire would only delay the invasion of Rafah. He describes it as an essential part of Israel’s target of “total victory” over Hamas.

Israel’s campaign so far has flattened large swathes of Gaza and killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children.

The only Hamas leader successfully targeted by Israel since 7 October, when Hamas killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in cross-border attacks and kidnapped more than 200 others to Gaza, was hit by a drone in Beirut.

Israel has been striking targets in Lebanon while attacking Hamas in Gaza, but mostly exchanging fire with the militant group Hezbollah along the border. On Monday it struck deep inside the country, near the north-eastern city of Baalbek.

It was the most significant attack on Lebanon since the January one that killed the Hamas commander Saleh al-Arouri, because of its location.