Palestinians stream into a southern Gaza town as Israel expands its offensive in the center

RAFAH – Tens of thousands of Palestinians streamed into an already crowded town at the southernmost end of Gaza in recent days, fleeing Israel’s bombardment of the center of the strip, as a senior U.N. official on Friday criticized Israel for continuing to impose “severe restrictions” on access to aid.

The renewed criticism came a week after the U.N. Security Council demanded an immediate increase in humanitarian deliveries to the besieged territory.

Israel’s unprecedented air and ground offensive against Hamas has displaced some 85% of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million residents, sending swells of people seeking shelter in Israeli-designated safe areas that the military has nevertheless also bombed. That has left Palestinians with a harrowing sense that nowhere is safe in the tiny enclave.

Nearly the entire population is fully dependent on outside humanitarian aid, said Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. A quarter of the population is starving because too few trucks enter with food, medicine, fuel and other supplies — sometimes fewer than 100 trucks a day, according to U.N. daily reports.

Drone footage taken Friday showed a vast camp of thousands of tents and makeshift shacks set up on what had been empty land on Rafah’s western outskirts next to U.N. warehouses. People arrived in Rafah in trucks, in carts and on foot. Those who did not find space in the already overwhelmed shelters put up tents on roadsides slick with mud from winter rains.

With the new arrivals, the town and its surrounding area are now packed with some 850,000 people, more than triple the normal population, according to U.N. figures.

“Some are sleeping in their cars, and others are sleeping in the open,” said Juliette Touma, UNRWA’s director of communications.

In other developments, South Africa launched a case at the United Nations’ top court accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and asking the court to order Israel to halt its attacks. It was the first such challenge made at the court over the current war. Israel swiftly rejected the filing “with disgust.”

The two nations have a poor relationship. Many South Africans, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, have compared Israel’s policies toward Palestinians with South Africa’s past apartheid regime of racial segregation.

Israel’s widening Gaza campaign, which has already flattened much of the north, is now focused on the urban refugee camps of Bureij, Nuseirat and Maghazi in central Gaza, where Israeli warplanes and artillery have leveled buildings.

But fighting has not abated in the north, and the city of Khan Younis in the south, where Israel believes Hamas’ leaders are hiding, is also a smoldering battleground. Militants have continued to fire rockets, mostly at Israel’s south.

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The war has already killed over 21,500 Palestinians, most of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. Its count does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Israeli officials have brushed off international calls for a cease-fire, saying it would amount to a victory for Hamas, which the military has promised to dismantle. It has also vowed to bring back more than 100 hostages still held by the militants after their Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that triggered the war. The assault killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

The military says 168 of its soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began.

A STREAM OF DISPLACED PEOPLE

The U.N. said late Thursday that around 100,000 people have arrived in Rafah, along the border with Egypt, in recent days. The town and its surrounding region had a prewar population of around 280,000, and the area was already hosting more than 470,000 people driven from their homes by the war.

The new arrivals enter a landscape of misery. Most available water is polluted. The sanitation system has broken down, and working toilets are a rarity. Illnesses run rampant among multiple extended families all squeezed together in shelters, homes or on the street — rashes, respiratory problems, diarrhea and other intestinal diseases.

“Everyone here is infected with a disease,” Dalia Abu Samhadana said of her family, who fled the fighting in Khan Younis earlier in the month and now shelter in Rafah’s Shaboura district in a house with 49 people. With little food available, her daily diet is mainly bread and tea.

Israel has told residents of central Gaza to head south, but even as the displaced have poured in, Rafah has not been spared.

A strike Thursday evening destroyed a residential building, killing at least 23 people, according to the media office of the nearby Al-Kuwaiti Hospital.

At the hospital, residents rushed in a baby whose face was flecked with dust and who wailed as doctors tore open a Mickey Mouse onesie to check for injuries.

Shorouq Abu Oun had been sheltering at her sister’s house, near the strike. She said her family had fled here from the north after the Israeli military said it was safe. “I wish we were martyred there and didn’t come here,” she said, speaking at the hospital where the dead and wounded were taken.

HAMPERED AID

Since the start of the war, Israel has halted supplies from entering Gaza — including food and fuel — except for the trickle of aid from Egypt. Earlier this month, Israel also began allowing relief trucks to enter through its Kerem Shalom crossing. Israeli officials in recent days blamed the U.N. for delays in delivery, without saying why.

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Lazzarini hit back on Friday, calling the criticism “baseless” and pointing to “severe restrictions on humanitarian access from the Israeli authorities.”

Trucks at Rafah and Kerem Shalom face long delays, he said, calling on Israel to reduce bureaucratic hurdles. Once in Gaza, distribution of aid is hampered by constant bombardment and fighting, Israeli military checkpoints and repeated cuts in telecommunications, he said.

He urged Israel to refrain from attacks near crossing points and convoys and to open safe routes to the north, which has received minimal aid.

In the latest delivery to the north, thousands of Palestinians massed outside a distribution center in Gaza City as aid trucks arrived. Footage from the scene showed people jumping onto the trucks and clinging to the sides, some throwing packages and cans of food to others on the ground.

Israeli soldiers fired on the aid convoy as it returned from the north along a military-designated route, damaging one vehicle, UNRWA’s Gaza chief, Thomas White, said in an post on X.

STRIKES IN CENTRAL GAZA

Residents said Friday that many houses were hit overnight in Nuseirat and Maghazi and that heavy fighting took place in Bureij. The al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al-Balah said it received the bodies of 40 people, including 28 women, who were killed in strikes.

“They are hitting everywhere,” Saeed Moustafa, a Nuseirat resident, said. “Families are killed inside their homes and the streets. They are killed everywhere.”

Israel blames the high death toll on Hamas, which it accuses of positioning fighters and weapons within the civilian population, including in residential buildings, schools and mosques.

In a rare admission of a mistake, Israel acknowledged making errors in a strike Sunday that hospital records indicated killed at least 106 people in the Maghazi camp, one of the war’s deadliest attacks.

In a preliminary review, the Israeli military said that buildings near the target were also hit, and that “likely caused unintended harm to additional uninvolved civilians.”

In a statement, the military said it regretted the harm to civilians and that it would learn from the errors.

Eylon Levy, a government spokesman, told Britain’s Sky News that the wrong munition was used in the strike, leading to “a regrettable mistake.”

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Magdy reported from Cairo, Jeffery from London. Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg contributed to this report from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.