UN chief, at Gaza crossing, appeals for end to war's 'nightmare'

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speaks with relatives and supporters of Israelis held hostage in Gaza since the October 7, 2023 attacks on Israel (Evelyn Hockstein)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speaks with relatives and supporters of Israelis held hostage in Gaza since the October 7, 2023 attacks on Israel (Evelyn Hockstein)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, on a visit to the doorstep of war-ravaged Gaza, on Saturday said the world has seen enough of its horrors and appealed for a ceasefire to allow in more aid.

He spoke at the crossing on the Egyptian side of Rafah, where most of Gaza's population has sought refuge but Israel vows to send in ground troops against Hamas militants, despite the fears of Guterres and other global leaders.

"Palestinians in Gaza -- children, women, men -- remain stuck in a non-stop nightmare," Guterres said. "I carry the voices of the vast majority of the world who have seen enough".

Despite warnings that a Rafah operation would cause mass civilian casualties and worsen the humanitarian crisis gripping Gaza after nearly six months of war between Israel and Hamas, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will press ahead with the attack.

But his government is under growing international pressure to ease its bombardment and ground offensive, which the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza says has killed at least 32,142 people.

The war began on October 7 when an unprecedented attack from Gaza by Hamas militants resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Israel vowed to destroy the militants, who also seized about 250 hostages, of whom Israel believes around 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 presumed dead.

Large parts of the territory have been reduced to rubble and the World Food Programme on Monday said Gazans are already "starving to death", with famine projected by May in northern Gaza without urgent intervention.

Writing on social media platform X on Friday, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, said the aid "Israeli authorities are allowing in is still by far not enough".

Currently, an average of 150 trucks a day enter Gaza, he said, compared with at least 500 before the war.

In the face of limited ground access, several nations have begun aid airdrops, and a sea corridor from Cyprus delivered its first cargo of food.

Israel has blamed shortages on the Palestinian side, namely a lack of capacity to distribute aid once it gets in.

Israel's most staunch ally the United States, which provides it with billions of dollars in military aid, has repeatedly blocked Gaza ceasefire resolutions at the UN Security Council.

But Washington has also become increasingly vocal about the war's impact on civilians. On Friday it tried to pass a text mentioning an "immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal", but China and Russia vetoed the US text.

The Gaza health ministry, in its latest toll on Saturday, reported at least 72 people killed overnight.

- 'Precise' -

Israeli forces continued operations in and around Gaza's biggest hospital complex, Al-Shifa, for a sixth day on Saturday.

The army said a total of more than 170 militants had been killed, more than 800 suspects questioned, and weapons found.

The "precise" operation is being conducted without harm to civilians or medical personnel, the army said.

The UN's humanitarian agency, OCHA, said "health workers have been among those reported arrested and detained."

Mohammed, 59, who lives a short walk from the Al-Shifa complex in Gaza City, told AFP he had seen "many bodies" in the streets, buildings on fire and tanks blocking the roads.

"I feel that Gaza has become worse than the fires of hell," he said, giving only his first name.

- 'Up in flames' -

Netanyahu on Friday reiterated his plan to send ground troops into the southern city of Rafah.

"I hope to do that with the support of the United States, but if we need to, we will do it alone," Netanyahu told visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that a ground invasion of Rafah is the only way to root out Hamas, but global leaders have warned that an incursion would worsen an already catastrophic situation.

In Rafah on Saturday, Guterres said: "Any further onslaught will make things even worse."

Blinken said he would continue discussions with Israeli officials to find an alternative to a ground incursion of Rafah.

Even without ground troops, Rafah is suffering regular bombardments.

Members of the Kawari family, who had taken refuge in Rafah after fleeing from Gaza City, told AFP a "huge explosion" killed four children and their grandmother during an air strike early Saturday.

"The entire house is destroyed. It went up in flames," said Fawzy Kawari, a relative of those who died.

To the north of Rafah, in Khan Yunis city on Friday, the Barbakh family mourned relatives killed in strikes -- and expressed anger at both Israel and Hamas.

"We want to understand what's the purpose of this war?" said Samih Barbakh. He accused Israeli forces of "annihilating us," before addressing a complaint to Hamas's self-exiled leader Ismail Haniyeh over the shortage of basic foods.

"Where are you Haniyeh?" Barbakh asked, saying a carton of eggs has risen tenfold in price "and it's not even available."

Blinken toured the region to bolster truce talks in Qatar, where mediators are aiming to secure a deal likely to involve militants freeing hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody and the delivery of more relief supplies.

The top US diplomat accused China and Russia of "cynically" blocking Washington's Security Council resolution, which linked a truce to the release of hostages.

Russia and China, along with Arab nations, said the US text was too soft on Israel and diplomatic sources said a tougher resolution was expected to be put to a vote in New York on Monday.