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Pause promises little humanitarian respite for Gaza’s battered residents

‘The aid reaches only very few people.’

This picture shows a group of people including children waiting in a circle around a person cooking lentil soup in a pot on an open fire on a rainy day at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 20, 2023. Bassam Masoud/Reuters
Children wait while Palestinians displaced by Israeli airstrikes cook lentil soup at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on 20 November 2023.

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After 47 days of intensive bombardment, near-total siege, and street-by-street fighting in the Gaza Strip, Israel and Hamas have agreed to a four-day pause in hostilities to allow for the release of dozens of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

The pause, due to begin on 23 November, provides an opportunity to increase the amount of humanitarian aid being delivered, but efforts so far have failed to meet the basic needs of most in the devastated enclave, where 70% of people have been forced from their homes.

A month and a half of war has had a catastrophic impact on Palestinians living in Gaza, and the amount of aid that has entered the territory through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt has only been a small fraction of what is needed. Even when aid had made it in, its distribution within Gaza has been badly hampered by the ongoing hostilities.

Since Israel began allowing aid into Gaza through Rafah on 21 November, at least 1,399 trucks carrying humanitarian supplies have entered the enclave, compared to an average of nearly 10,000 trucks carrying commercial and humanitarian goods that would enter Gaza each month before 7 October, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

The BBC reported that the truce would see more aid allowed into Gaza on each of the four days, including 200 aid trucks, four fuel tankers, and four gas lorries, but other details on how the deal might impact the humanitarian situation remained scarce.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that civilians in Gaza are facing the “immediate possibility of starvation” and that “supplies of food and water are practically non-existent”.

The enclave has been under intense Israeli bombardment since 7 October, when Hamas, the Palestinian political and militant group that governs the territory, launched an attack into Israel, resulting in the deaths of around 1,200 people, including many civilians who were deliberately killed, according to Israeli authorities. Hamas also took around 240 hostages back to Gaza.

On 9 October, Israel imposed a “complete siege” on Gaza, cutting off electricity and water supplied by Israel and blocking the entry of food, fuel, medical supplies, and other essentials. An Israeli ground invasion, which began on 27 October and has been concentrated on the north of Gaza, has effectively cut the enclave in two. 

More than 1.6 million people out of a population of around 2.3 million have been displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of people have been pressured by Israel to leave the north of Gaza along a corridor left open by the Israeli military to the south.

Gaza’s health ministry said it is no longer able to count the number of people who have been killed by Israel’s military campaign because of the collapse of the health system in parts of the enclave and the difficulty of retrieving bodies from underneath collapsed buildings and from areas now controlled by Israeli soldiers.

At last count, from 11 November, more than 11,000 people had been killed, including more than 4,500 children, according to Palestinian health officials.

Meanwhile, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, the largest aid distributor in the enclave, cannot deliver aid that enters through the Rafah border crossing to the north of Gaza, UNRWA spokesperson in Gaza Adnan Abu Hasna told The New Humanitarian.

All of the bakeries in the north of Gaza have stopped functioning because of a lack of fuel, water, and wheat flour, and people have resorted to eating the few raw vegetables and unripe fruits they can find, according to an OCHA situation report from 20 November.

“The number of trucks transporting humanitarian aid from the Rafah crossing to the agency's warehouses might go down due to the fuel shortage, potentially causing a disruption in the flow of aid.”

Aid distribution efforts ground to a halt in the south last week, as fuel supplies ran out. Since then, under pressure from the United States, Israel has agreed to allow 140,000 litres of fuel into Gaza every two days.

“The quantities of fuel entering since the beginning of the week are insufficient,” UNRWA’s Abu Hasna said, noting that they are still half the amount that would enter before the war.

The fuel can only be used in UNRWA trucks to distribute aid and to power vital services such as sewage treatment plants, telecommunication networks, and water desalination plants, but these are only able to operate at half of their regular capacity, according to Abu Hasna.

“The number of trucks transporting humanitarian aid from the Rafah crossing to the agency's warehouses might go down due to the fuel shortage, potentially causing a disruption in the flow of aid,” he added.

During the four-day pause, Hamas is supposed to release 50 of the hostages it is holding in exchange for 150 Palestinian political prisoners. Those freed by both sides will be women and children, and there is a possibility for the pause to be extended an extra day for every 10 additional hostages released by Hamas. 

The exact time the pause will begin has not yet been confirmed on the Israeli side, but Hamas has said it will begin at 10am local time on Thursday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet the Israeli military will resume fighting in Gaza after the pause ends.

Some aid groups, including Oxfam International, are cautioning that the four-day pause is no substitute for a longer-term end to the fighting, which is needed to address the devastating humanitarian situation in Gaza.

“This is a Band-Aid that will be ripped off a bleeding wound after four days,” Oxfam said in a statement. “The fact that this pause is now the central topic of discussion marks today as just another day without progress to the only humanitarian solution that really matters: an end to this horrific bloodshed.”

‘Humiliation and chaos’

Aid entering through Rafah had only been distributed to people staying in shelters – many set up in schools – run by UNRWA or by the government in Gaza. But on 21 November, Abu Hasna said that, “starting today, flour will be distributed to all [displaced people] and residents of affected areas, whether in UNRWA schools or outside them".

At least 917,000 people who have been displaced from their homes are now staying in 154 UNRWA-run facilities in the southern half of Gaza, where the aid distributions have been taking place. The facilities are severely overcrowded, and a lack of water for sanitation is leading to the spread of diarrhoea and other diseases.

In the Ma’an neighbourhood of Khan Younis, a city in the south of Gaza, Um Diaa, 75, said her son had refused to register at an UNRWA shelter to receive flour rations.

“There is humiliation and chaos in the distribution process, which often lasts over five hours,” Um Diaa told The New Humanitarian in a telephone interview during one of the limited times when the mobile internet network was working.

According to OCHA, people wait in line four to six hours on average to receive two loaves of pita bread, which is half a normal portion.

Without humanitarian aid, “people in the neighbourhood share what they have”, said Um Diaa.

“Some [local] charity organisations distribute small amounts of canned goods, like fava beans or a few kilos of flour. Vegetables, like tomatoes and potatoes, are rare, and we can only cook on a fire because there’s no fuel,” she continued.

Across Gaza, farmers have begun to slaughter their livestock to address their immediate need for food, and because of a lack of feed for the animals, according to the 20 November OCHA situation report.

Some people living in the shelters have also resorted to selling part of the rations they receive from UNRWA to buy necessities like baby formula, “if they can find it”, Um Diaa added.

The journey of an aid truck to Gaza

Before entering Gaza, aid first needs to reach Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate. Egypt has told the international community to direct relief flights to the el-Arish airport, some 45 kilometres south of the Rafah border crossing.

Since 12 October, more than 150 planes carrying over 4,000 tonnes of aid from at least 29 countries and numerous international organisations have landed at the airport, according to the Egyptian Red Crescent. Egypt has provided at least 12,710 tonnes of aid as well.

Both international and local aid is handed over to the Egyptian Red Crescent, which warned on 16 November that it is “close to running out” of supplies stored in its warehouse in el-Arish. The New Humanitarian couldn’t confirm if this was still the case by 22 November.

Before heading to the Rafah border crossing, the aid is first taken to the al-Awja/Nitzana border crossing between Egypt and Israel for inspection by the Israeli military, Major General Mohamed Abdel-Fadil Shousha, the governor of North Sinai, told a press conference last month in the presence of a UN delegation.

Egypt’s foreign ministry has said that Israel’s inspection process has slowed down the delivery of much-needed aid to Gaza.The al-Awja/Nitzana border crossing is a roughly 80-kilometre drive from el-Arish and a roughly 50-kilometre drive from Rafah.

The Rafah border itself was primarily a civilian crossing point and is not equipped to handle a large-scale aid operation. Israel also bombed the crossing four times in the weeks immediately after 7 October, damaging the road connecting the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of the border.

Once aid actually reaches the Rafah crossing, it is unloaded from Egyptian Red Crescent trucks and reloaded on to Palestinian Red Crescent trucks before crossing the border, where supplies are handed over to UNRWA, the agency responsible for its distribution, Shousha said at the press conference.

The road to el-Arish

The four-day pause in fighting in Gaza will see a scaling up of efforts to bring aid into the territory through Rafah, but there are barriers to rapidly increasing delivery on the Egyptian side of the border too.

The city of el-Arish, the capital of North Sinai, is a controlled military zone – a legacy of a military campaign Egypt waged against an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State in North Sinai between 2014 and 2022.

Access to el-Arish is restricted to residents with locally issued ID cards. To reach the city, truck drivers have to have pre-approved permits and pass through six fortified checkpoints. A six-metre-high wall built in 2018 and equipped with guard towers and surveillance cameras, surrounds the city. There are three entry and exit points manned by military and police on the eastern, western, and southern sides of the city.

Dozens of relief trucks are parked along the Arish-Rafah International Road, near a sports hall, under police guard, The New Humanitarian’s journalist at the scene said. Stranded for days, some even weeks, truck drivers are only allowed to move towards the Rafah crossing when instructed by military personnel to exit through the western gate of el-Arish towards the next city, Sheikh Zuweid, about 15 kilometres from Rafah.

Inside Egyptian Rafah are scenes of total devastation. The city was evacuated of its 76,000 inhabitants during the Egyptian military’s campaign against the so-called Islamic State. Ruined villages and burnt farmland and olive trees line both sides of the road. Egypt has created a 13-kilometre long and five-kilometre wide buffer zone along the border with Gaza that is a closed military area where civilians are forbidden to enter. The names and permits of everyone passing through are checked at three military checkpoints.

At the crossing last month, the sound of incessant bombings, explosions, and the buzzing of Israeli military planes on the Palestinian side could be heard. Occasionally, rockets were launched towards Israel.

Mohammed Atef, a truck driver, told The New Humanitarian by phone on 19 November he had been waiting near the crossing for a week. A charity based in Sheikh Zuweid provides food to drivers like him, but he has to walk a couple of kilometres to get a cellphone signal to call his family.

“I will not return until supplies are unloaded on the Palestinian side,” Atef said.

"This is not the time to calculate gains or losses [of income],” he added. “The important thing is to bring aid to our Palestinian brothers."

Not enough to go round

The situation inside Gaza, meanwhile, has been growing ever more desperate. 

"People are looking for any wall to shelter them,” Sameh Salam, a resident of Khan Younis now sheltering in a single apartment with 25 members of his family, told The New Humanitarian.

“Families are sleeping on the streets, on cardboard, or in makeshift shelters. Thousands are seeking refuge in hospitals which used to be safe from airstrikes,” said Salam, 38. Before the war, Salam owned a mobile shop and a café. Both have now had to shut down. He has five children, all under the age of 17.

Salam explained that the only way to access food and water aid is by leaving your home and moving into an UNRWA-run shelter. 

“But we rejected this option,” said Salam, “because of the inhumane conditions and overcrowding, where people must queue for hours just to use the restroom.”

Thaer Mohamed, who lives in Rafah, agrees with Salam. With no steady job, Thaer, 28, father to a two-year-old son, struggles to provide for his small family.

“The aid reaches only very few people, and residents are continuously looking for alternatives to bread, rice, and pasta,” said Mohamed. “The grocery stores are empty, and the little that is available has multiplied in price.”

“At first, we relied on bakeries for bread, even if we had to wait five to seven hours,” explained Mohamed. “But when Israel bombed 11 bakeries and the rest ran out of fuel, wheat, and electricity, even that was no longer an option.”

He said they are now also facing a salt shortage, which has hiked the price of a single kilo to $4, “if you can find it”.

It is a struggle to find clean, drinking water, as well, said Mohamed: “I had to buy 250 litres locally for about $25, which will barely last me and my family two days”. Before 7 October, the same amount of water would have cost him about $2.70.

This story has been published in collaboration with Egab. Edited by Rania Elmalky and Eric Reidy.

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