Gaza needs humanitarian aid now

by Trudy Rubin

The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is far too serious to remain unresolved as Israel and Hamas play chicken with negotiations over a temporary cease-fire.

While Palestinian families eat leaves, grind animal feed to make bread, and babies die from malnutrition, Israel and Hamas are dawdling over finalizing a U.S.-backed plan for a humanitarian cease-fire that would permit a partial hostage release — and a surge of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Vice President Kamala Harris, in a forceful speech to a receptive audience in Selma, Ala., last Sunday, called for an “immediate cease-fire for at least the next six weeks” as part of a negotiated deal.

A pause in hostilities is important, but the White House should intensify its push for a massive humanitarian aid influx — with or without a cease-fire.

Using humanitarian aid as a strategic weapon in Gaza — as both Hamas and Israel have been doing — cannot be tolerated any longer, with starvation and epidemics threatening to explode.

Although the Israeli government denies it, facts on the ground make obvious that revenge is partly the motive for restricting aid into Gaza.

Israelis were traumatized by the brutal murders, rapes, and mutilation when thousands of Hamas fighters and followers invaded on Oct. 7. A United Nations report released last Monday confirmed that sexual violence and rape had been committed in multiple locations during the attack, and against some hostages who were kidnapped and taken to Gaza.

But as the Israeli press has repeatedly reported, and endless videos from Gaza have confirmed, Israeli rules of military engagement regarding civilians have been so greatly relaxed as to ensure massive civilian casualties. Gazan health authorities claim that two-thirds of the reported 30,000 Palestinian deaths (including militants) are women and children. Endless photos of parents holding small bodies wrapped in white sheets barely hint at the pain.

While Israel has ordered Palestinian civilians to evacuate to the south, there has been no safety anywhere. Evacuation routes, tent camps, and supposedly safe areas are bombed, with extended families crammed into single apartments being killed because there might be one suspected Hamas fighter in the building.

Equally destructive, the flow of humanitarian aid trucks into Gaza has been drastically limited by a litany of Israeli excuses, as long lines of aid vehicles wait in Egypt or Israel to be permitted entry.

“On my way into Gaza, I passed hundreds of trucks, all unable to reach those in dire need,” said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “Civilians in Gaza are falling sick from hunger and thirst because of Israel’s entry restrictions. Lifesaving supplies are being intentionally blocked.”

Indeed, although Israel blames Hamas fighters inside Gaza for stopping trucks, right-wing Israeli demonstrators have been permitted to block vehicles from entering at the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel into Gaza, one of only two Israel has opened. The number of trucks, already only a fraction of what is needed, has decreased in recent weeks.

Moreover, Israel is making it impossible for aid to be delivered once it does enter Gaza.

Aid agencies are begging U.N. member states, including the U.S., to restore funding for UNRWA — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East — which is the largest provider of aid and services inside Gaza. Israel claims some UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7 attack. Yet, there is no substitute organization with the personnel or infrastructure to deliver food, water, and shelter to the 1.4 million Gazans made homeless by Israeli bombs.

Israel has also targeted UNRWA workers and Gazan police (who worked for the former Hamas government) while providing security for aid trucks. The ensuing chaos led to the deaths of 110 Gazans a couple weeks ago from being trampled or shot by Israeli troops as they swarmed a food convoy in Gaza City.

Moreover, Israel has no clear plan for moving, let alone feeding, the 1.4 million hungry civilian refugees now clustered in the southern city of Rafah, which it is now bombing and says it intends to invade.

Keep in mind that, unlike refugees in larger wars, the Gazans are trapped in a tiny geography, unable to flee, except possibly into the Egyptian desert — something Cairo strongly opposes because Egyptian officials know Israel would never permit those Palestinians to return home.

So, what is to be done to prevent famine?

In an astonishing sign of President Joe Biden’s frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the United States has started airdropping MREs (military meals ready to eat) onto Gaza’s southwestern beaches. But such drops are risky and only address a tiny pittance of the need.

According to Vice President Harris, the U.S. “will work on a new route by sea to deliver aid.” But Gaza has minimal port facilities, so little seaborne aid is likely to arrive.

There are other steps Israel could take immediately to increase the flow of aid. The most urgent, as Harris proposed: “They must open new border crossings” — including two inside Israel, Erez and Karni — “They must not impose any unnecessary restrictions on the delivery of aid. They must ensure humanitarian personnel, sites, and convoys are not targeted.”

Equally important: If there is no broader Israel-Hamas deal in the coming days, the United States should press for a new U.N. Security Council resolution focusing mainly on getting food, fuel, water, medicine, and shelter into Gaza, even before any cease-fire.

Such U.S. pressure would be doing Israel a favor, since scenes of massive starvation already play into Hamas’ hands — and will forever blot Israel’s global reputation.

In the immediate future, if there is no succor for Gaza civilians before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in underway, Israeli-Palestinian tensions in Jerusalem could explode, provoking more international support for Hamas.

So, let’s hope for a six-week cease-fire. But the most urgent need is to force Israel (and Hamas) to let in massive aid convoys.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: trubin@phillynews.com.