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Rafah is 'pressure cooker of despair' as Gazans flee south - UN agency

Displaced Palestinian children, who fled their houses due to Israeli strikes, wait to collect water amid shortages, at a tent camp in Rafah

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

GENEVA (Reuters) -The United Nations humanitarian office on Friday voiced concern about the hostilities in Khan Younis that have forced more people to flee to Rafah in the far south of Gaza, describing the border town as a "pressure cooker of despair".

The comments come as Israel prepares to advance its war on Gaza farther south, close to the Egyptian border, where most Gazans have sought refuge from the Israeli offensive.

"I want to emphasize our deep concern about the escalation of hostilities in Khan Younis, which has resulted in an increase in the number of internally displaced people seeking refuge in Rafah in recent days," said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

More than half of Gaza's 2.3 million people are sheltering in the area, mainly cold and hungry in makeshift tents and public buildings.

"Rafah is a pressure cooker of despair, and we fear for what comes next," Laerke said.

Gaza residents have said Israeli forces pounded areas around hospitals in Khan Younis, and stepped up attacks close to Rafah.

"Khan Younis has also come increasingly under attack, and it's been shocking to hear about the heavy fighting in the vicinity of the hospitals, jeopardising the safety of medical staff, the wounded and sick, as well as thousands of internally displaced people seeking refuge there," Laerke said.

"Agencies are indeed struggling to respond under these circumstances."

In separate comments, UNICEF said it estimated that 17,000 children in Gaza were unaccompanied or have been separated from their families during the conflict, which began on Oct. 7 in the wake of attacks by Hamas gunmen in southern Israel.

It said that nearly all children in the enclave were thought to require mental health support.

"They present symptoms like extremely high levels of persistent anxiety, loss of appetite. They can't sleep, they have emotional outbursts or they panic every time they hear a bombing," said Jonathan Crickx, UNICEF's chief of communication for the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

"Before this war, UNICEF was considering already that 500,000 children were already in need of mental health and psychosocial support in Gaza. Today, we estimate that almost all children are in need of that support, and that's more than 1 million children."

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Rachel More)