OPT: Field Update on Gaza from the Humanitarian Coordinator 17 - 18 Jan 2009 as of 17:00


"Where you have a direct hit on an UNRWA school where about 1,600 people had taken refuge, where the Israeli army knows the coordinates and knows who's there, where this comes as the latest in a catalogue of direct and indirect attacks on UNRWA facilities, there have to be investigations to establish whether war crimes have been committed." - Christopher Gunness, UNRWA spokesperson

Following a meeting of the Israeli security cabinet on 17 January, Prime Minister Olmert announced a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza, which came into effect at 0200 hours local time 18 January, and stated that Israeli forces will remain in the Gaza Strip 'for the time being' and respond to fire from militants. For its part, Hamas initially declared it would continue hostilities until Israel withdrew its forces, opened the border crossings and ended its restrictions on the entry of goods to Gaza. On the afternoon of 18 January, Hamas declared its own cease-fire, announcing that Israeli forces had one week to leave the Gaza Strip.

The cease-fire follows twenty-two days of bombardment by land, sea and air which have left 1,300 Palestinians dead according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health and caused extensive destruction to homes and to public infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip. Supplies of basic foodstuffs and fuel, and the provision of medical, water and sanitation services remain critical. In a press release on 18 January, UNDP warned that 'the long-term implications of this most recent conflict in terms of recovery and development are mounting. [T]he livelihoods and assets of tens of thousands of civilians are being systematically undermined through the destruction of productive resources such as fruit orchards, fisheries, and basic industries.'


The Israeli army remains in the north, east and Rafah border areas although there are reports that ground forces are withdrawing from some areas in Gaza City and Rafah following the cease-fire. Prior to the Hamas ceasefire, Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets and mortars into Israel and Israeli fire resulted in a number of Palestinian casualties. On the evening of 16 January, an Israeli air strike struck a residential house in Bureij Refugee Camp, killing a mother and five of her children. Seven people attending a funeral wake house in Gaza City were killed on the same day when a shell struck the house, including three brothers of the deceased. The same evening, an Israeli shell struck the Abu al-Aish family home in Jabalia killing three daughters and a niece. Palestinian Ministry of Health (MoH) figures as of 1600 hours 18 January are 1,300 Palestinians dead, of whom 410 are children and 104 are women. The number of injured stands at 5,300, of whom 1,855 are children and 795 are women. The danger to medical staff and the difficulty of extracting the injured from collapsed buildings makes proper evacuation and estimation of casualties difficult, including the determination of the number of Palestinian male civilian casualties. Approximately 100 bodies have been recovered today 18 January from areas from which the Israeli army has withdrawn. More are expected once the Israeli army completes its withdrawal from Gaza. Nine Israeli soldiers have been killed since 27 December. According to the Magen David Adom national society, Israeli civilian casualties stand at four dead and 84 injured since 27 December. OCHA's casualty figures do not include the number of Palestinians or Israelis treated for shock.


On 17 January, a number of white phosphorous shells struck the yard of an UNRWA school in Beit Lahia, causing panic among the 1,600 civilians who had taken refuge there. While evacuating the shelter, an explosive shell struck the third floor of the school, killing two brothers, aged five and seven, and injuring 14 others including the boys' mother. UNRWA has demanded an independent investigation into this incident. A total of more than 50 UN facilities have sustained damaged since 27 December. There are no bomb shelters in the Gaza Strip, and no alarm systems to warn of impending bombardment.


UNRWA is now operating 50 emergency shelters for 50,896 displaced people in Gaza. The shelters, many of them schools, are overcrowded. Prior to the military operation, UNRWA had procured and pre-positioned non-food items for 5,000 people. Due to the unprecedented number of people seeking refuge, UNRWA has been able to provide only basic levels of support, including food and water. The emergency shelters, especially those in the north, are in urgent need of non-food items. Altogether, the 50 shelters have a shortage of more than 23,000 blankets and mattresses. Construction materials also need to be brought into Gaza. Thousands of families whose houses have been damaged are struggling to stay warm as they have no materials to repair the damage.


The ability of hospitals and intensive care units to cope with the constant influx of war injured is stretched to the limit, and medical personnel are under severe strain following twenty-two days of crisis.

According to WHO, the administrative building, emergency and ambulance station at the Al-Quds Palestinian Red Crescent Society Hospital were entirely destroyed when it was shelled on 15 January. The hospital's roof, top floor and a corridor were also damaged. The hospital is no longer able to function. In a separate attack on the same day, the Al Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital in east Gaza City sustained damage to the eastern wall of the geriatric ward. Despite the damage, the hospital continues to provide health care.

Following these incidents, 60 patients were evacuated from the Al Quds and Al Wafa hospitals to Shifa Hospital, adding additional strain to its already overloaded capacity.

On 16 January, the ICRC coordinated the trucking of more than 25,000 litres of fuel to ten hospitals and clinics in Gaza City. Fuel is badly needed for hospital generators as well as for ambulances to move and collect the injured and sick. During the past 48 hours, Shifa Hospital has been powered exclusively by generators to avoid unexpected power cuts, especially for patients in the intensive care unit.


UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.