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UNRWA says Israeli strike hit Gaza food aid center, killing 1 staffer and wounding 22 others

Latest on Israel-Hamas war | March 14, 2024
The latest on the Israel-Hamas war | March 14, 2024 02:27

Gaza Strip — The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees on Wednesday said at least one of its staff members was killed in an Israeli strike on a food distribution center in war-torn Gaza.

"At least one UNRWA staff member was killed and another 22 were injured when Israeli forces hit a food distribution center in the eastern part of Rafah," in southern Gaza, the agency said in a statement.

The Israel Defense Forces, asked by CBS News for comment on the incident, said in a statement later Wednesday that it had killed "a terrorist in Hamas' Operations Unit" in a "precisely targeted" airstrike based on intelligence. The IDF identified the operative as Muhammad Abu Hasna, whom it said was "a combat support operative in Hamas' military wing" involved in "taking control of humanitarian aid and distributing it to Hamas terrorists."

Site of Israeli strike on UNRWA aid distribution center in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man reacts as blood stains the floor at an UNRWA aid distribution center following an Israeli strike, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, March 13, 2024. Mohammed Salem/REUTERS

The IDF said Hasna had also "coordinated the activities of various Hamas units, as well as communicated with and activated Hamas field operatives." 

Speaking earlier, UNRWA spokesperson Juliette Touma told AFP that the agency did "not yet have more information on what exactly happened nor the number of UNRWA staff impacted," adding that UNRWA used the facility in question "to distribute much-needed food and other lifesaving items to displaced people in southern Gaza."

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said four people were killed in the "bombing of the warehouse." The ministry, which does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths, says more than 31,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, most of them women and children.

The conflict raging in Gaza since the enclave's Hamas rulers launched their Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking some 240 others hostage, has caused mass civilian deaths and reduced vast areas to a rubble-strewn wastelands as Israeli forces have pushed into the territory.

It has also sparked warnings of a looming famine in the Palestinian territory, where the vast majority of the 2.4 million inhabitants have been displaced from their homes.

UNRWA under pressure

The U.N. agency itself has been accused by Israeli officials of shielding, if not helping Hamas, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has made it clear that, from its perspective, UNRWA should be dismantled.

After Israeli officials presented a detailed report early this year alleging that UNRWA staff took part in the Oct. 7 attack as agents of Hamas, the Biden administration and many other Western nations that have long provided the cash to keep it running suspended funding to the U.N agency.

Hasna's name does not appear on a list of 12 UNRWA staff members specifically identified by Israeli authorities as alleged Hamas operatives, which was released late last year.

The IDF assertion that Hasna was involved in "taking control of humanitarian aid and distributing it to Hamas" — which comes after previous Israeli government accusations that the group is diverting aid intended for civilians — contradicts information provided by David Satterfield, the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues, to members of the U.S. Congress.

Satterfield wrote in a letter to congress that the U.S. had received "no allegations, evidence or reports of incidents of Hamas diversion or theft of U.S. or other assistance or fuel from U.N. delivered assistance from any of our partners or from the Government of Israel since humanitarian assistance was resumed in Gaza on October 21st."

Satterfield's assessment was revealed in a Feb. 3 letter sent to President Biden by a small group of Democratic senators, pushing the White House to review the provision of U.S. aid to Israel in light of developments in the war in Gaza.

The U.N. has launched an independent investigation into the Israeli allegations that UNRWA staff members were involved in the Oct. 7 attack, and the U.S. and other nations have said future funding will depend very much on those findings and the action taken by the global body in response.

But the future of UNRWA's international cashflow remains very much in question.

Explaining UNRWA and its controversies 02:34

"We will see how this investigation plays out, I mean, that's incredibly important," Samantha Power, the top official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) told CBS News in February, adding that the U.S. would also need to see "systemic changes" within UNRWA, "because this is just not okay."

Power noted, however, that there was really no effective alternative to distribute the vital aid required in Gaza.

"You have 90% of the Gazan population that has been displaced," she said, adding that there was an "acute dependence" on the humanitarian infrastructure" provided by UNRWA.

That was reiterated Tuesday by State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, who told reporters that "UNWRA plays a critical role in delivering humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians that no other agency is positioned to assume."

He added, however, that the U.S. government was exploring "alternative groups and organisations that can deliver the humanitarian assistance that UNWRA delivers."

EU: "Starvation is being used as a weapon of war"

The strike came as donor nations, aid agencies and charities pushed on with efforts to rush food to the impoverished territory.

A Spanish charity vessel, the Open Arms, was on its way to Gaza from Cyprus Wednesday, after setting sail a day earlier towing a barge with 220 ton of aid, in a first voyage meant to open a maritime corridor.

President Biden announced the plans for that corridor last week, saying the U.S. military would help construct a temporary pier on Gaza's Mediterranean coast to facilitate the docking of aid ships. Work has begun by a regional construction company, but the pier is expected to take up to two months to complete.

U.S. troops mobilize for humanitarian effort in Gaza amid Middle East tensions 02:02

The European Union's top diplomat Josep Borrell told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that the humanitarian crisis "is man-made."

"If we look at alternative ways to provide support, it's because the land crossings have been artificially closed," he said, charging that "starvation is being used as a weapon of war."

Israel controls all land crossings into Gaza.

The U.N.'s World Food Program, trying an alternative land route from southern Israel, sent an initial six aid trucks Tuesday into worst-hit northern Gaza, through a gate in the security fence, the Israeli army said.

The WFP said it had "delivered enough food for 25,000 people" and demanded that, "with people in northern Gaza on the brink of famine, we need deliveries every day. We need entry points directly into the north."

About half a dozen Arab and Western nations have also airdropped food parcels on parachutes into Gaza, and Morocco has sent a planeload of relief supplies via Israel's Ben Gurion airport.

Scores more killed, parties "not near a deal" for truce

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said Wednesday that at least 88 people were killed over the previous 24 hours, adding that "dozens of missing persons are still under the rubble."

The Israeli army said its troops were "intensifying operations" in the southern Gaza Strip, including the biggest city there, Khan Younis.

Palestinians inspect damages in Qatari-funded Hamad City following Israeli raid, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians walk through the rubble of destroyed residential buildings following an Israeli raid, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, March 13, 2024. Ahmed Zakot/REUTERS

"In the last 24 hours, there were exchanges of fire between IDF (Israeli army) troops and a terrorist cell consisting of seven terror operatives barricaded inside a compound in the Hamad area of Khan Younis," it said. "In a coordinated strike, the troops killed several of the terrorists, and then directed an aircraft to strike and eliminate the rest of the cell."

Weeks of talks involving US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators had aimed to bring a truce and hostage release deal before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but missed the Monday deadline.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said that, although talks continued, "we are not near a deal."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has doubled down on his pledge to "destroy Hamas" — including by sending troops into the last part of Gaza that has so far been spared ground operations, far-southern Rafah.

The prospect of a Rafah invasion has sparked global alarm because it is crowded with almost 1.5 million mostly displaced people.

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