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Jan
23
2024

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

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every week, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

Dispatch
“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.
Jameel, Juliette Touma, and Mohammed Al Khatib

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 tent kitchen. 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

Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Thousands of Palestinians gather at the funeral of Ahed Welad Muhammad and Muhammad Darwish in the southern West Bank town of Dura on January 16th. Israeli forces killed the two men after Palestinians in the town confronted invading soldiers.

Basel Al-Adraa/Activestills

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • On Monday, the Israeli army launched a new ground offensive in and around the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, killing at least 50 Palestinians and wounding 100 in one night. Khan Younis had already been battered by deadly Israeli airstrikes, but Israeli ground troops had previously remained just outside the city. The new push into Khan Younis, which Israel says is meant to target Hamas, led to “a mass exodus of residents from southwestern Gaza further inland,” according to The Washington Post. Upon entering Khan Younis, Israeli soldiers raided one hospital, arresting medical staff, and put another under siege, leaving rescue workers unable to attend to dozens of dead and wounded. On Tuesday, the Palestinian Red Crescent, a health organization, said that Israeli shells had struck its Khan Younis headquarters, injuring Palestinians who had taken refuge there. Since the beginning of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza on October 7th, over 25,000 people have been killed, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
  • Last night, the US and United Kingdom air forces bombed eight military sites in Yemen—marking the eighth time in two weeks that the US has attacked areas controlled by Yemen’s Houthi movement. The military actions against the Houthis are in response to the Islamist faction’s shooting of missiles at ships in the Red Sea, which it has carried out in response to Israel’s war on Gaza, and which have disrupted global trade routes. On Thursday, a reporter asked President Biden whether the attacks on the Houthis were working. Biden responded: “When you say, ‘working’—are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”
  • On Friday, an Israeli settler and Israeli soldiers opened fire on 17-year-old Palestinian American Tawfiq Ajjaq in the West Bank village of Al-Mazra’a Al-Sharqiya, killing him. According to the human rights group Defense for Children International-Palestine, Ajjaq was in a car when an Israeli settler began to fire at him from another vehicle. As the teen drove away, an Israeli military vehicle approached from the opposite direction and also opened fire. It is unclear whether the bullet that killed Ajjaq was fired by a settler or by a soldier. National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby said on Monday that the death was a “tragic killing,” and said the United States has “every expectation that those responsible will be held accountable.” However, Israeli soldiers rarely face consequences for the killings of Palestinians; the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says that Israel’s military law enforcement system, which investigates such deaths, is a mechanism “to successfully cover up unlawful acts and protect perpetrators.”
  • On Tuesday, 21 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza in the single deadliest incident for Israeli forces since the assault on Gaza began. The soldiers had planted explosives in and around two buildings in the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza; their demolition was planned as part of an effort to establish an Israeli “buffer zone” inside Gaza that would be off-limits to Palestinians. When a Palestinian militant fired grenades at a nearby tank, the explosives inside the buildings went off, and the structure collapsed on the soldiers. In a separate incident, Palestinian militants killed three Israeli soldiers who entered western Khan Younis on Monday. In total, 221 soldiers have been killed in the Israeli offensive in Gaza.
  • The Israeli military has destroyed or damaged at least 16 cemeteries in Gaza since troops invaded the coastal enclave, according to a CNN investigation published on Saturday. The investigation found that Israeli vehicles bulldozed cemeteries to convert them into military posts and that military vehicles were parked where graves once were. In a cemetery in Khan Younis, some dead bodies were dug up by the Israeli army and taken to another location; according to the Israeli military, this was done as part of a search for the remains of Israeli hostages taken during Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel. In another instance, observed by CNN reporters embedded with the army, Israeli soldiers drove an armored vehicle through a cemetery in a Palestinian refugee camp. Israel’s army told the television outlet it sometimes had “no other choice” but to target cemeteries, alleging that Hamas was using them for military purposes. International legal experts say the desecration of cemeteries could be a war crime.
  • On Friday, during a rally where Columbia University students demanded that the school divest holdings in companies that do business with Israel, multiple demonstrators were sprayed with a putrid chemical substance that some students said was “skunk,” an Israeli weapon often used against Palestinians protesting in the West Bank. Several students went to the hospital or sought medical care after being sprayed. The suspects behind the spraying, who pro-Palestine students say are former Israeli soldiers, have been banned from Columbia’s campus while the New York Police Department investigates. Columbia did not release any communications about the incident in the 48 hours after it took place, and in its first comment on the matter—responding to a question from an Intercept reporter—the university’s spokesperson appeared to blame pro-Palestinian students for the incident, saying that students had held an “unsanctioned” event that “violated university policies and procedures which are in place to ensure there is adequate personnel on the ground to keep our community safe.” After the Intercept article was published, however, Columbia sent an email to those on campus saying that a “deeply troubling incident” had taken place.
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