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GAZA CITY – The nine-day battle between Hamas fighters and the Israeli military damaged 17 hospitals and clinics in Gaza, destroyed the only coronavirus test laboratory, sent foul-smelling sewage onto the streets and broke water pipes for at least 800,000 people in a humanitarian crisis that affects almost every civilian touched in the crowded enclave of about two million people.
Sewage systems in the Gaza Strip were destroyed. A desalination plant that was used to supply 250,000 people in the area with fresh water is offline. Dozens of schools have been damaged or closed, forcing around 600,000 students to miss classes. Around 72,000 Gazans had to flee their homes. At least 213 Palestinians were killed, including dozens of children.
The extent of the destruction and death of people in Gaza has highlighted the humanitarian challenge in the enclave, which had suffered from an indefinite blockade by Israel and Egypt even before the most recent conflict.
As the crisis deepened, there were increasing international calls for a ceasefire on Tuesday.
President Biden, who had publicly supported Israel’s right to defend itself, privately warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he could no longer deter growing pressure from the international community and American politicians, said two people familiar with the call . The private message indicated a time limit on Mr. Biden’s ability to provide diplomatic cover for Israel’s actions.
All but one member of the European Union, Hungary, called for an immediate ceasefire in an emergency meeting on Tuesday. They supported a statement condemning Hamas missile attacks and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense, but also warned that this must be done “proportionally and in compliance with international humanitarian law,” according to the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell Fontelles.
Israel and Hamas were embroiled in ceasefire negotiations brokered by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations. However, no progress was reported on Tuesday as Israeli planes continued to hit Gaza with rockets and Hamas and its Islamist affiliates fired rockets at Israel.
At least 12 Israeli residents were killed in the conflict. No later than two Thai citizens were hit by a rocket attack on a food packaging point on Tuesday afternoon, the Israeli police said.
Within Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Palestinians held one of the largest collective protests in memory. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians went on general strike in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Israel to protest the Gaza War, Israeli occupation, discrimination and violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel and the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem.
The demonstrations began peacefully but led to clashes in some places in the West Bank. Outside Ramallah, a group of Palestinians who had gathered separately from the demonstrators set fire to a main thoroughfare and later exchanged shots with Israeli soldiers. Three Palestinians were killed.
Rocket fire from Palestinian militants has also damaged Israeli infrastructure, damaged a gas pipeline and disrupted operations at a gas rig and at two major Israeli airports.
But the damage was incomparable to that in Gaza.
Until Monday evening, the Al Rimal Health Clinic in the center of Gaza City housed the only coronavirus test laboratory in Gaza. There, doctors and nurses administered hundreds of vaccinations, prescriptions and checkups to more than 3,000 patients every day.
But on Monday evening, an Israeli air strike hit the street outside, sending splinters to the clinic, shattering windows, tearing up doors, furniture and computers, baking rooms to rubble and destroying the virus laboratory.
Vaccinations have been canceled and doctor’s appointments postponed. The pharmacy was closed and the delivery of medicines was interrupted.
More than 1,000 Gazans were wounded in the Israeli offensive, making the damage to hospitals and clinics particularly dangerous.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
“During wartime, people need more treatment than usual,” said Mohammed Abu Samaan, a senior administrator of the clinic, on Tuesday. “Now we can no longer give people medicine.”
The humanitarian situation in Gaza was dire even before the war. Unemployment was around 50 percent. The Israeli and Egyptian governments control what flows in and out of the strip, as well as most of its electricity and fuel. Israel also controls the birth register, airspace, maritime access and cellular data in the Gaza Strip and restricts Palestinian access to farmland adjacent to the edge of the strip.
An Israeli army spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, did not deny that Israel’s air strikes damaged civilian infrastructure, but said Israeli military leaders did their best to avoid it.
“Of course, health facilities, mosques, schools, water systems and the like are marked in our system as sensitive infrastructure that must not be attacked and influenced by our fire,” he said. “Obviously we are taking precautions.”
The high civilian death toll and damage to civilian infrastructure have raised questions about Israel’s compliance with international war laws, which prohibit targeting purely civilian sites and limit acceptable collateral damage to what is appropriate for military advantage.
However, William Schabas, professor of international law and former chairman of a United Nations commission that investigated allegations of Israeli war crimes in Gaza in 2014, said: “Proportionality is a subjective term.”
Hamas fighters operate from an extensive network of tunnels under Gaza. As Israeli warplanes drop bombs to destroy this network, it is the people trapped between them who suffer the most catastrophic losses.
Hamas, which has fired more than 3,000 rockets at Israeli cities, is clearly committing war crimes, according to legal experts, even though its weapons are far less effective and their toll is far smaller.
In southern Israel schools within range of Hamas rocket fire have been closed and many families have left the border areas. Wailing sirens warning of missile attacks shape daily life in Israel, especially in the south, and repeatedly send Israelis to shelters.
But the Hamas attacks also appear to be contributing to the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
When a convoy of 24 trucks with urgently needed international aid from Israel tried to enter Gaza on Tuesday, they came under mortar fire from Palestinian militants, according to Israeli and UN officials. Only five of the trucks got through the intersection before the rest were turned back.
The trucks contained medical equipment, animal feed and fuel tanks for use by international organizations in Gaza, Israeli officials said.
Since 2007, Hamas has had three major conflicts with Israel and several minor skirmishes. After every outbreak of violence, Gaza’s infrastructure was in ruins.
According to a report by the United Nations, the wars and the blockade left Gaza with the “highest unemployment rate in the world” last year and more than half of the population lives below the poverty line.
As of Monday, Israeli bombs had destroyed 132 residential buildings and rendered 316 residential units uninhabitable, according to the Gaza Housing Ministry.
An air strike essentially destroyed Hala al Shawa clinic in northern Gaza, which also provides basic health care and vaccinations, while another damaged four ambulances nearby, the Ministry of Health said.
The explosion of a third airstrike broke windows in operating rooms, forcing the clinic to move surgical patients to other hospitals, said Abdelsalam Sabah, the ministry’s hospital director. A separate air strike caused structural damage to the nearby Indonesian hospital, he added. A piece of splinter flew into the emergency room at Gaza Eye Hospital and almost wounded a nurse, he said.
The strike at Al Rimal Clinic in Gaza City also damaged the administrative offices of the Hamas-led health ministry, said Dr. Majdi Dhair, Director of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Ministry.
A ministry employee was hospitalized and in serious condition after being hit in the head by a splinter, said Dr. Dhair on Tuesday in a telephone interview.
“This attack was barbaric,” he said. “There’s no way to justify it.”
The coverage was contributed by Patrick Kingsley and Myra Noveck of Jerusalem; Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel; and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Tzur Hadassah.