Jan 23, 2024

United Nations workers prepare aid for distribution to Palestinians in the the central Gaza Strip, November 4th, 2023.

Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via AP

“Even as We Are Trying to Help, We Are Being Attacked”

Three humanitarian workers in Gaza describe the challenges of providing aid while struggling to survive.

(This article also appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter; subscribe here!)

Even before October 7th, Israel’s 16-year blockade of the Gaza Strip had left 80% of the enclave’s population dependent on humanitarian aid to meet basic needs. But the aid sector, which has long been a core feature of Gaza’s economy, has taken on a new centrality amid Israel’s current siege and bombardment campaign, with aid organizations becoming responsible for the immediate survival of most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents—many of whom are displaced without access to shelter, food, and water.

But even as Gaza’s aid workers struggle to distribute vastly inadequate shipments of food, medicine, and other essentials to the desperate population, they personally face the same forms of danger and deprivation as the people they are trying to help. Humanitarian personnel are explicitly protected under international humanitarian law, but in Gaza, many describe their increasing awareness that their aid worker vests do not grant them immunity from Israel’s indiscriminate attacks. Instead, Israel has targeted shelters and aid convoys, with the United Nations (UN) reporting the killing of 151 of its staff—the highest number of UN workers killed in a single conflict since the body was established in 1945. Most of the aid workers killed were themselves displaced from home, and many who survived “have nevertheless lost everything: their families, their homes, their peace of mind,” in the words of Juliette Touma, Director of Communications at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). “People are bringing their children to work with them so that if they die, they die together,” Touma said.

In addition to carrying out direct attacks on humanitarian staff, Israel and its allies are also waging a broader campaign to demonize, and ultimately destroy, UNRWA, which is the Strip’s largest humanitarian organization. Through anti-UNRWA hit pieces across Israeli media, calls for “eliminating” the group’s presence in Gaza and shutting down its activities in East Jerusalem, and even an International Court of Justice lawsuit accusing UNRWA’s head of “promoting terrorism,” this Israeli campaign seeks to cut off the group’s funding and bring its already-imperiled operations to a total halt—which would precipitously deepen the catastrophe in Gaza.

Jewish Currents spoke to three humanitarian workers trying to provide aid under apocalyptic conditions. They described the unprecedented obstacles to distributing aid, the impact of the killing of aid workers on an already dire crisis, and the terrifying precedent that Israel’s actions are setting for the future of aid work in conflict zones. These dispatches have been edited for length and clarity.

“People now knock on my door to beg for items—bread, cheese, blankets, mattresses—in a personal capacity.”

Before the war, I used to help provide many different kinds of aid: food, clothes, housing, and education. But now, after months of being denied the fundamentals of life, we are simply trying to ensure that people survive. This means prioritizing winter clothing, medicine for pregnant and diabetic people, milk formula for babies, and most of all, food.

The situation is catastrophic: Almost 600,000 people are starving. We are trying to address this by opening kitchens. When one of my neighbors had more than 80 people living in her house and could not feed them with her own money, we set up a kitchen there. These aid kitchens, which distribute food on a first-come, first-serve basis, currently provide 10,000 meals a day—but it is not enough.

We are trying to open more and more kitchens, but it is exhausting and there are many obstacles. The siege and broken supply chains make it hard to get shipments from our partners at the World Food Program, so we are often left trying to find things on the market. Even before October 7th, some everyday items—eggs, milk, baby formula—were very expensive for ordinary families in Gaza. But now there is no proper market at all; to get what you need, you need to know the right people. Vendors who do sell food do so at extremely inflated prices: One kilogram of sugar used to cost less than $1, and now it costs $7.50.

These problems affect not just my aid work but also my life. My family is one of the lucky ones because we still have our home in Rafah; however, we can’t make bread at home because we have no flour, so at least three times a week I find myself spending hours in the bread queue. I once went to the bakery at 2:15 am and came back at around 12:00 pm—and all to get just a handful of bread. You can only get small amounts at a time, both because there is a shortage and because there is no electricity to run the fridge, so any extra will spoil.

The shortages are becoming so dire that people now knock on my door to beg for items—bread, cheese, blankets, mattresses—in a personal capacity. They are not asking because I am an aid worker; they are asking because we are all struggling and dying. I always try to share, but my family and I also need food to stay alive, so I can’t give away everything I have.

If I had the opportunity to live a better life outside Gaza with all my family members, I would take it immediately. But that is not a choice we have. Instead, we are stuck in a nightmare, and some people wish to die rather than to keep fighting to stay alive. We really need the world to wake up; we need its efforts to end the blockade and the war.

Jameel (pseudonym), Local Coordinator at Rebuilding Alliance, as told to Jonathan Shamir, January 6th.

“Attacks [on aid workers] set the dangerous precedent that international humanitarian law can be disregarded.”

During ordinary times, UNRWA ran hundreds of schools in the Gaza Strip, catering to about 300,000 children. Out of our 13,000 staff members in Gaza, two-thirds were teachers. But today, those schools have been turned into shelters, and many of our teachers are instead providing life-saving assistance to millions.

UNRWA has long operated amidst crisis. Four out of five Palestinians in Gaza already lived in poverty before this war, and we were providing humanitarian assistance to over half of the enclave’s population. We also knew that, at any time, there could be renewed hostilities along the lines of what happened in 2021. But when we prepared for the worst case scenario, we imagined 150,000 people in our 50 shelters. We never thought we would reach the point we are at now. As of January 17th, we have 1.9 million people in 154 UNRWA facilities.

I am based in Amman but I visited Khan Younis and Rafah just before the humanitarian truce kicked in during the last week of November. At the time, one of our largest centers—the Khan Younis Training Center—was hosting over 30,000 displaced people, though its official capacity was just 1,000. You can imagine how crowded it was. People were on top of each other; they were sleeping on concrete floors, in shacks and tents outside, or in their cars if they had managed to bring them. I met one man who was using his shoes as a pillow.

The crowding has only worsened since then, creating a situation ripe for the spread of disease. It’s a miracle that we haven’t had major outbreaks. The truce helped a bit because more aid trucks were allowed into Gaza. The fuel they brought in allowed desalination plants to run, for example, which temporarily improved the water supply. But the war’s huge impact on the economy has continued. Every shop and pharmacy is closed. On any high street, you will only find the bakeries open. So what you have in Gaza is a population of more than 2 million people relying solely on humanitarian assistance to survive. Without more aid coming in, this situation is unsustainable.

What makes matters worse is that even as we are trying to help, we are being attacked. Politically, we are facing smear campaigns from Israel and some of its allies, who are seeking to discredit UNRWA. They range from broader attacks on UNRWA to personal smears against our workers. For example, in one case, an Israeli journalist alleged that one of our teachers held an Israeli hostage in his attic, and wrote that “these are not isolated incidents. These civilians are terrorists.” When we asked him to share information about this incident, or anything else for that matter, we never received anything. These false allegations are extremely damaging: financially, reputationally, and in terms of morale.

Then there are the direct attacks. Since October 7th, we have recorded 170 Israeli airstrikes on our facilities, most of which led to the deaths of families sheltering there. Israel has attacked UNRWA schools in Jabalia, a UN guest house in Rafah, and, on December 28th, an UNRWA aid convoy traveling on a route designated as safe by the Israeli army. This is happening even though UNRWA shares the location coordinates for all of our facilities with Israel on a regular basis, so that they can be protected. Such attacks set the dangerous precedent that international humanitarian law can be disregarded, as can any requirement to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian assistance—and even the lives of aid workers.

As of January 17th, the war has killed 151 UNRWA staff in Gaza, which is the highest human loss in UN history. The vast majority of these aid workers were killed with their families; most died in displacement shelters, since 70% of our staff have themselves been displaced. Many who survived have nevertheless lost everything: their families, their homes, their peace of mind. There is a deep sense of helplessness. People are bringing their children to work with them so that if they die, they die together. In this situation, putting on your UNRWA vest every morning is an act of heroism.

Juliette Touma, Director of Communications at UNRWA, as told to Jonathan Shamir, January 17th.

“I couldn’t do my humanitarian work because I was the only one who could take care of my own relatives.”

Gaza has been through plenty of escalations and wars, so all of the NGOs here had emergency plans based on previous Israeli assaults. But ultimately, all of our emergency planning was not enough. No one anticipated the intensity of this war—or the way it would affect aid workers.

Right from the first day, our local staff were displaced and began losing their homes and loved ones. In the first week, my house was bombed. Two of my family members died; six others were injured. I couldn’t do my humanitarian work, which involves providing emergency medical care to others, because I was the only one who could take care of my own relatives, both medically and financially. I also couldn’t leave Gaza City when we were asked to evacuate. My colleague Mahmoud similarly couldn’t leave Gaza City because of his elderly parents. So our ability to provide aid was immediately compromised. And this continues: One of our colleagues was recently injured in an attack where she lost her two-year-old daughter and her two sisters.

The lack of safety for aid workers is a daily challenge for all the NGOs in Gaza. For example, we are often unable to get into the hospitals that we support because they are being attacked. We have canceled several field trips to provide medical services to displaced people due to bombing in those areas. It’s not just us: Yesterday, the office of another NGO was bombed and several people sheltering there were injured, including a small child who was severely hurt. I can keep going on and on about this: Examples are everywhere.

As long as I can help, I won’t be leaving Gaza. But in the current situation, it is barely possible for us as humanitarians to support people in need. We need more resources, more hands on the ground. And we need security—not only for us, but also for our families, whom we leave behind every day with no knowledge of whether we will see them again. Ultimately, we need a ceasefire to stop the flow of mass casualties so that we can do our job.

Mohammed Al Khatib, Emergencies and Complex Hospital Care Programme Manager at Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), as told to Aparna Gopalan, January 10th.

Jameel, who is using a pseudonym, is Local Coordinator at Rebuilding Alliance in Gaza.

Juliette Touma is the Director of Communications at United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Mohammed Al Khatib is the Emergencies and Complex Hospital Care Programme Manager at Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) in Gaza.

Jonathan Shamir is a Jewish Currents fellow and the former deputy editor of Haaretz.

Aparna Gopalan is news editor at Jewish Currents.