UNITED NATIONS -- Gaza's 1.5 million residents are facing an "alarming" humanitarian situation under constant Israeli bombardment, with the main power plant shut down, overcrowded hospitals struggling to cope and very limited food supplies, U.N. officials said.
The power plant shut down on Tuesday because Israel has blocked fuel delivery through the main pipeline since Dec. 26, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said Wednesday. This has forced hospitals to use generators, which have limited fuel supplies, and left many of the 650,000 people in central and northern Gaza with power cuts of 16 hours a day or more, he said.
"The situation remains alarming," Holmes said. "Hospitals are obviously still struggling very much to cope with the number of casualties. We have continued to get some medical supplies in and to help them cope, but this remains difficult and fragile."
Karen Abu Zayd, commissioner of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which helps Palestinian refugees, told reporters by video link from Gaza that the agency has not distributed any food for two weeks because of the shortage of supplies and the Israeli bombardment.
"I think that means that 20,000 people a day have been without food that they expect - and probably is the bulk of what they get," she said. "So people are doing pretty badly. Everyone we know is sharing whatever they have, not just with their families but with their neighbors."
"We haven't seen widespread hunger. We do see for the very first time ... people going through the rubbish dumps looking for things, people begging, which is quite a new phenomenon as well," she said.
Holmes said the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel was open, with 55 trucks of food and medical supplies and five ambulances getting into Gaza on Tuesday, and about 60 trucks on Wednesday. That compares to 125 truckloads a day in October 2008 and 475 truckloads a day in May 2007, just before Hamas took control of Gaza, he said.
Some medical supplies, ambulances and generators also got into Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, he said.
In Crawford, Texas, President George W. Bush's spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters that officials are seeing "a good flow" of medical and food supplies into Gaza.
Abu Zayd stressed that her U.N. agency needs 100 trucks of flour a day to meet the needs of refugees. But she said Israel has closed down the Karni crossing, the main gateway for cargo into Gaza where it is normally delivered, for security reasons.
She said UNRWA was told by the Israeli humanitarian coordinator that all other crossings aren't open because "there is intelligence about serious preparations for security operations."
"We wonder if it's serious enough to really keep things completely closed and to keep people on their edge of subsistence," she said.
Holmes said "the major needs, apart from medical supplies, remain ... grain and wheat flour and fuel - also cash would be very helpful to enable people to buy supplies."
He said the Israelis have been "cooperative in principle about these supplies but we need to see more results."
UNRWA launched an emergency appeal on Tuesday for $34 million for food, medical supplies and other goods, he said, and "there are good indications that the donors will respond generously."
Both Holmes and Abu Zayd said the bombing has also taken a psychological toll.
Abu Zayd said U.N. staff members "try to tell their children that the bombing is a wedding and somebody's celebrating."
"The children, of course, know that there's something wrong because they're not going to school," she said. "They were supposed to take their exams this week."
"Everyone is just traumatized by what's happening each day, and also their worries about the future, because they don't know what's going to happen next... they're just expecting the worst," Abu Zayd said.