Israeli Aid Policies Drive Starvation

US initiatives to airdrop and ship aid to Gaza are logistical workarounds to a political problem.

Elisheva Goldberg and Maya Rosen
March 12, 2024

US airdrops in Gaza, March 9th.

Mohammed Hajjar/AP

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On March 7th, President Joe Biden announced during his State of the Union address that the United States would establish a temporary, floating sea pier through which to deliver humanitarian supplies to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, an increasing number of whom are starving. The pier, Biden said, will “enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza.” Two days later, the US military said that the General Frank S. Besson, a logistical support vessel, had set sail to the Strip to begin construction on the pier. According to the Pentagon, this process would take “several weeks, likely up to 60 days” and require “over 1,000 US forces”; in the meantime, the US plans to continue airdropping aid into Gaza, an initiative that it began in early March.

But even as such measures are responding to an urgent humanitarian crisis, experts say they are logistical workarounds to a political issue: Israeli policies blocking aid to Gaza. As Avril Benoît, the US executive director of Doctors Without Borders, has explained, “The US plan for a temporary pier in Gaza to increase the flow of humanitarian aid is a glaring distraction from the real problem: Israel’s indiscriminate and disproportionate military campaign and punishing siege.” Since October 7th, Israel has restricted aid to Gaza to a trickle, with February seeing an average of only 96 trucks per day entering the enclave, a far cry from the 500-600 that used to enter daily. Israel has also made it harder for aid organizations to purchase items, arbitrarily restricted the entrance of goods and movement of trucks, and attacked aid convoys, all of which has contributed to a reality in which 576,000 people—more than a quarter of Gaza’s population—are living on the brink of starvation. This is not because of a lack of available food. The UN’s World Food Programme has said there is enough food waiting outside Gaza to feed “the entire population,” and aerial photos from late February showed 2,000 trucks of aid sitting on the other side of the Egypt–Gaza border, awaiting entry.

Experts say that addressing the crisis-level food shortage in Gaza requires tackling months of Israeli policies that have impeded the flow of aid into the enclave. For instance, after October 7th, Israel’s military began prohibiting aid agencies from purchasing Gaza-bound humanitarian goods from Israel. According to Miriam Marmur of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization that supports freedom of movement in Gaza, this measure posed a massive logistical challenge for humanitarian organizations working in the Strip, which had previously purchased many of their provisions in Israel and the West Bank. “When we’re talking about food and supplies for 2.2 million people, that adjustment is huge,” she told Jewish Currents. Israel has also restricted aid by reducing the number of crossings into Gaza to just two: Kerem Shalom, which borders Israel, and Rafah, which borders Egypt. Moreover, “the opening hours [for the crossings] are not consistent—and are not long enough,” Juliette Touma, United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)’s director of communications, told Jewish Currents. “Some days, the crossing closes for the whole day, and we’re not able to bring supplies at all.” Further, each crossing can only process a certain number of trucks each day, necessarily limiting the total amount of aid. Despite the existence of other checkpoints, especially Karni and Erez in Gaza’s north, where aid is particularly needed, Israel has refused to open additional points of entry.

Even when aid trucks arrive at the available crossings and have coordinated with the Israeli military in advance, they can still be denied entry into Gaza. Sometimes an entire truck is denied entry because it is carrying a specific item that the Israeli military considers “dual use” —items Israel says could be used for either civilian or military purposes. These items have included dates, sleeping bags, oxygen machines, ventilators, and crutches. “When a truck with just one of those items is turned down, the entire truck gets turned around and has to go back to the beginning of the process, which can take weeks,” Senator Chris Van Hollen explained to CNN after a January visit to the Gaza border. But even if an aid truck has no dual use items, it can still be stopped, seemingly arbitrarily. “It’s deliberately opaque, deliberately ambiguous,” a humanitarian official told CNN. “You can receive clearance from COGAT [Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the branch of the Israeli military that oversees Palestinian civilian matters] and arrive to find police or finance and customs officials who will send the truck back.” It is not just the military that stops trucks. For months, a growing group of Israelis has been staging regular—and widely popular—protests at the crossings in order to prevent aid trucks from entering Gaza, while police and soldiers stand by. These actions have, at times, successfully prevented trucks from entering the enclave for an entire day.

When trucks do enter Gaza, the Israeli military can still prevent them from reaching their destination within the enclave, especially when they are heading north to serve the approximately 300,000 Gazans still living there—many of whom have become so desperate for food that they have resorted to eating animal feed and weeds. In the past month, the Gaza Ministry of Health has reported at least 27 deaths due to malnutrition and dehydration in northern Gaza. Touma of UNRWA noted that the organization has faced severe obstacles in getting aid to the north. “We’re not getting authorizations from the Israeli authorities to travel from the south to the north,” she said. Aid convoys traveling north have also been fired upon directly by the Israeli army. Between mid-January and the end of February, the UN recorded 14 incidents of “shooting, shelling and targeting groups gathered to receive urgently needed supplies.” Touma said that UNRWA convoys have faced such attacks, with some being “allowed to travel to the north and getting hit [by Israeli fire] either on the way up, or on the way back from delivering food.” February 29th saw the deadliest such incident yet, with Israeli troops opening fire on an aid convoy and killing over 100 Palestinians attempting to obtain food. Israeli military sources claim that troops were firing on “suspects who posed a threat” to troops, but accounts by survivors called the shooting “indiscriminate.”

These policies blocking aid are backed by officials at the highest levels of the government. Indeed, senior Israeli officials have suggested that allowing aid into Gaza “is the opposite of the purpose of the war,” which is “to annihilate [Hamas’s] ability to govern.” Specifically, Israeli officials have repeatedly claimed that much of the aid sent to Gaza ends up in the hands of Hamas, directly sustaining the group in addition to freeing it of the obligation to provide for the sustenance of its citizens. Grisha Yakubovich, the former head of the civilian department of COGAT, told Jewish Currents that through this process, Israeli aid to Gaza indirectly bolsters Hamas’s military strength by allowing the group to use its resources on rockets rather than food. Yakubovich also took issue with permitting aid convoys into Gaza because they were typically accompanied by Palestinian security forces, some of whom are nominally affiliated with the civilian arm of Hamas’s operations. “Our goal of this war is to make sure that Hamas would not exist anymore,” he said, adding that in this case, “allowing them to be the policemen, to distribute the food or to create order, [is] a contradiction.” In keeping with this reasoning, recent Israeli attacks on aid convoys have killed at least 11 such security officers, with Israeli officials rebuffing US requests to stop targeting Palestinian policemen. As a result, many such officers have stopped accompanying aid deliveries because of the danger to their lives, leading at least one aid organization to temporarily suspend aid deliveries into the north of Gaza.

This targeting of aid convoys illustrates a broader dynamic where the Israeli army’s goal of destroying Hamas is fueling policies that aggravate the starvation crisis in Gaza. In this context, experts say that the international community should confront Israel rather than simply capitulate to Israel’s positions. Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told The Guardian that the US opting instead for aid airdrops is “the ultimate sign of weakness and shows the US is unwilling to stand up to Israel.” Other experts agree that the crisis requires not a logistical workaround but a real political response. “Instead of dropping packages from the sky . . . the US, the UK and others should ensure that Israel immediately opens all crossings into Gaza for aid and aid workers to assist those in need,” Melanie Ward, the head of Medical Aid for Palestinians, told The Guardian. “Only safe and unfettered access for aid and aid workers, the lifting of the siege and an immediate ceasefire can end starvation in Gaza.” While the US has successfully pressured Israel in limited cases around humanitarian aid—such as the recent approval of a US shipment of flour that far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich held up at an Israeli port for over a month—initiatives to airdrop aid and build a sea port work around Israel’s anti-aid policies, instead of trying to dismantle them. This approach, as The New York Times put it, positions the US as a provider of aid to “people who are being bombed with tacit US support.”

Moreover, such initiatives are unlikely to make a dent in the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. An airdrop contains one-tenth of the amount of food a single aid truck can bring in, and because they cannot be aimed precisely, or distributed properly, end up landing in random locations, including the sea, and causing chaos. “Because the aid is not coordinated, it isn’t going to people that need it most, it is going to the people that are the fastest and strongest,” former USAID director to the West Bank and Gaza Dave Harden told Middle East Eye. In one recent instance, airdropped aid even became deadly after a parachute attached to an aid package failed to deploy. Instead of slowly drifting down, the pallet of food attached to the parachute “fell down like a rocket on the roof of one of the houses,” a witness told The Guardian. The malfunction killed five people and injured at least ten other starving Gazans who had gathered to wait for food near the al-Shati Refugee Camp, one of the most devastated areas of the Strip, where aid has been particularly scarce. The instance only affirmed the limitations of airdrops, which Harden has called “symbolic and designed in ways to appease the domestic base.” The same could be said of a US-run port which, in addition to taking up to two months to complete, will still face the challenges of secure transportation within the Strip once aid is unloaded from the dock.

In the absence of political pressure on Israel to change its policies, the situation in Gaza is likely to continue worsening as a growing number of Palestinians succumb to starvation and others, desperate for food, loot the few aid trucks that do enter the enclave. “People are really, really desperate. I’ve been to many, many emergencies, and I’ve never seen anything like the scale of this level of desperation,” Jaime McGoldrick, a top UN official in the region who has made regular trips to Gaza, told Jewish Currents. “When a truck comes in—because they don’t come regularly—people think there may not be another truck coming along for another week or so,” he explained. “So people stop it and they ransack it, they loot it because they’re desperate.” Harden told Jewish Currents that in this situation, the only way to prevent further looting and reestablish a secure aid distribution system is to allow in “more aid through more entry points in a highly decentralized way”—in other words, flood the enclave with necessary aid instead of trickling it in. “There is no real reason you couldn’t have four, six, ten entry points in Gaza right now,” Harden said, adding: “Israel knows this. The Biden administration knows this.”

Elisheva Goldberg is the media and policy director for the New Israel Fund and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. She was an aide to former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and has written for The Daily Beast, The Forward, The New Republic, and The Atlantic.

Maya Rosen is the Israel/Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.