By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) – As Israeli air strikes pounded the Gaza Strip ahead of an expected ground offensive, the enclave’s residents were getting more desperate by the hour as water runs out, garbage piles up, explosions flatten homes and hospitals struggle to cope.
Desperate to get some drinking water, some people began digging wells in areas adjacent to the sea or were relying on salty tap water from Gaza’s only aquifer, which is contaminated with sewage and seawater.
Two residents in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, volunteered to fill plastic containers with water to distribute among displaced families.
Some residents prayed for an end to the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has raised fears of a wider Middle East conflict.
They said overnight air strikes were the heaviest in nine days of conflict. Many houses were flattened. Gaza authorities said at least 2,750 people, mostly civilians and among them more than 700 children, had been killed and nearly 10,000 wounded. A further 1,000 people were missing, believed to be under rubble.
Israel has imposed a full blockade as it prepares a ground assault in Gaza. Israeli troops and tanks are massed on the border.
It has vowed to annihilate Hamas, which rules the enclave, in retaliation for a rampage by its fighters in Israeli towns nine days ago in which its militants killed 1,300 civilians including children and seized hostages in the worst attack on civilians in the country’s history. Israel’s military said at least 291 soldiers have been killed.
Medical and emergency services, and some graphic mobile phone footage, said atrocities were committed in the overrun towns and kibbutzes.
Hamas has continued to fire rockets at Israel since its cross-border assault. On Monday, rocket-warning sirens sounded in several towns in southern Israel, the Israeli military said.
Diplomatic efforts are underway to try to get aid into the enclave, via Egypt.
“Gaza is running out of water and electricity. In fact, Gaza is being strangled and it seems that the world right now has lost its humanity,” said Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.
Hamas said on Monday that Israel had not resumed water supplies to Gaza despite pledging to do so. An Israeli official said some water was being provided to an area in the south of the enclave.
Amid international calls for a ceasefire to allow aid in, Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said there would be no halt to the siege without freedom for Israeli hostages. The Israeli military said on Monday 199 people were confirmed held hostage in Gaza.
FEARS OF HEALTH CRISIS
Gaza is one of the most crowded places on earth, and for now there is no way out. Egypt, which also has a border with the enclave, has so far resisted calls to open it to fleeing residents.
“Because of the large number of people inside the camp, there’s no water. So I thought I would volunteer, come with a rickshaw and carry the water from the far away areas, the dangerous areas,” said Mohammad Saqr.
“Now, we’re filling in salt water, I’m ready to drink from the salt water – what else can we do?” Saqr said.
Even before the latest conflict erupted and Israel cut electricity and fresh water supplies to Gaza, 90 percent of the water was undrinkable, according to the Palestinian Water Authority.
The territory’s only aquifer is contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater and neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents.
Even the 10% of the aquifer’s water deemed safe to drink is often mixed with poor-quality water during distribution, making it good only for washing.
Many families living in Gaza have opted to drill private wells drawing from water deep underground, and a small number who can afford it tend to buy mineral water. Others buy cheaper filtered treated water from water-trucks that tour the streets.
Garbage is also piling up on the streets and inside shelters for the displaced, raising fears of a health crisis.
“If the garbage continues to pile up it will cause diseases and pandemics,” said Mohammad Hadhoud, a cleaning worker from Khan Younis.
Doctors have been scrambling to help a rising number of patients, including children injured in the air strikes, in overcrowded hospitals that are running short on medicines and fuel due to the blockade. Only the most acute cases are getting surgery because there are not enough resources, doctors say.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Janet Lawrence)