Gaza is a 'death zone' with little food, dire conditions, WHO chief says: Updates

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Editor's Note: This page is a summary of news on the Israel-Hamas war for Wednesday, Feb. 21. For the latest news on the conflict in the Middle East, view our live updates file for Thursday, Feb. 22.

The head of the World Health Organization called Gaza a "death zone" Wednesday, lamenting health and living conditions that are “inhumane’’ and only getting worse.

Speaking at a media briefing in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed out severe malnutrition has increased from less than 1% to more than 15% in the Palestinian territory, where World Food Program workers aren’t safe enough to distribute supplies in the north and the largest hospital in the south is besieged and barely functional.

"Gaza has become a death zone," Tedros said before asking: "What type of world do we live in when people cannot get food and water, or when people who cannot even walk are not able to receive care? What type of world do we live in when health workers are at risk of being bombed as they carry out their lifesaving work?"

The U.N. World Food Program said Tuesday that it was pausing aid distribution in northern Gaza amid “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order,” citing supply trucks getting swarmed by starving crowds and aid workers encountering gunfire and looting.

The flow of trucks carrying humanitarian aid has been cut in half from a daily average of 144 since the beginning of the year, mostly because of safety issues.

"The situation is beyond your imagination," said Soad Abu Hussein, a widow and mother of five children sheltering in a school in Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City.

A Palestinian walks through the rubble of the Khatab family building after an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Feb. 21, 2024.
A Palestinian walks through the rubble of the Khatab family building after an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Feb. 21, 2024.


∎ Benny Gantz, an influential member of Israel's War Cabinet, said in a televised news conference Wednesday that "there are preliminary signs that hint at the possibility of advancing a new hostage release deal." He also added that if no agreement is reached, Israel would continue its Gaza offensive during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.

∎ Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva the U.S. disagrees with his comments comparing the war in Gaza with the Holocaust as they met Wednesday in Brasilia, according to a State Department official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

∎ Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich drew sharp criticism from President Isaac Herzog and others Wednesday after saying securing the hostages' return was “not the most important thing” for Israel. Smotrich said the government’s primary focus should be on destroying Hamas.

∎ An anti-Hamas Telegram channel called Gaza’s Liberators shared videos apparently documenting Palestinians protesting against the militant group.

Sexual assault 'systematic and intentional' Oct. 7, report says

The rapes and other forms of sexual assault perpetrated by Hamas-led militants in their Oct. 7 attacks against Israel were more widespread than previously believed as well as “systematic and intentional,'' according to a report released Wednesday.

“In some cases, rape was conducted in front of an audience, such as partners, family, or friends, to increase the pain and humiliation for all present,” the study by the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel said.

Many male and female victims had their bodies mutilated, including their genitals, said the association's executive director, Orit Sulitzeanu.

The authors said the report relied on interviews with officials and first responders as well as media accounts. It did not identify any victims. Sulitzeanu said many of them were killed after being sexually assaulted, and there was little documentation from the overwhelmed first responders.

Israeli strikes kill two each in Syria and Lebanon

Israeli airstrikes killed two people each in Syria and Lebanon on Wednesday, according to media reports, in a continuation of the long-simmering hostilities with the Middle East nations amid Israel's higher-intensity war with Hamas in Gaza.

SANA, the Syrian state news agency, said missiles fired from the direction of Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights hit a building in Damascus, killing two civilians and wounding another. Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes inside government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, targeting militants.

In Lebanon, a woman and her daughter were killed by an Israeli strike in the southern town of Majdal Zoun, state media and security officials said. Israeli military spokesperson Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee said on social media the Israeli army had carried out an attack on “a military building.”

The militant Hezbollah group responded with a rocket attack on a village in northern Israel.

Rep. Ogles: 'Kill them all ... everybody in Hamas'

A spokesperson for a Tennessee congressman on Wednesday defended his comments about Hamas and the Palestinians that have drawn global attention. Republican Rep. Andy Ogles was walking through the Capitol when he was asked by an activist about the "genocide" occurring in Gaza. Ogles finally turned to the woman and said: “You know what? I think we should kill them all, if that makes you feel better. Everybody in Hamas.”

The woman asked Ogles, a married father of three, if he had "a heart" and a family. Ogles replied that “Hamas and the Palestinians have been attacking Israel for 20 years. It is time to pay the piper.”

The American Muslim Advisory Council "unequivocally" denounced the comments, saying they amounted to advocating for "the extermination of the Palestinian people."

Ogles was among several Republicans introducing legislation that would prohibit the U.S. from accepting Palestinians displaced by the war in Gaza. Al Jazeera and the Times of Israel were among Middle East outlets playing the story Wednesday.

Ogles spokesperson Emma Settle told the Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, that Ogle "was not referring to Palestinians; he was clearly referring to the Hamas terrorist group."

US defends Israel before world court

The United States stood by Israel before the International Court of Justice on Wednesday as U.S. representative Richard Visek rejected claims that Israel is "legally obligated to immediately and unconditionally withdraw" from occupied territory.

Visek argued that the hearing was one-sided, focusing on Israel’s role in the occupation and ignoring the country's legitimate security concerns highlighted by the Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people in Israel and fueled the war in Gaza.

The decision from the 15 judges will likely have little impact on the war. Most nations testifying in The Hague, Netherlands, were less kind to the Israeli position. Cuba told the court that to qualify Israel’s actions “merely as acts of apartheid would leave out the implicit intention to exterminate the Palestinian people." Egypt's representative said Palestinians have been subjected to the “longest protracted occupation in modern history” and denounced the "obstruction of the Palestinian people’s inalienable, permanent and unqualified right to self-determination."

Living quarters for Hamas leaders found in Gaza tunnel

The Israeli military said it seized and destroyed a Hamas tunnel the length of 10 football fields under the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. Militants defending the tunnel were killed, the military said in a statement. The tunnel had blast doors, plumbing and electricity and appeared to provide living quarters for senior Hamas officials, the military said. The Israeli military has found multiple, vast tunnels built by Hamas under cities and towns in Gaza, buttressing the Israeli claim that Hamas is using civilians as human shields.

"The (Israeli) fighters encountered the swing doors and barriers placed by the terrorists to prevent the forces from entering the tunnel," the statement said. "The fighters broke through the blockades and identified terrorists in the tunnel."

Contributing: Melissa Brown and Duane W. Gang, Nashville Tennessean; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel Hamas war updates: WHO chief says Gaza is a death zone