1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Palestine

In-depth: Israeli attempt to circumvent UN contributes to Gaza aid chaos

‘It’s chaos here, and it is caused by a seemingly wilful application of unpredictability to a system that relies on predictability.’

Parachutes are currently attached to parcels of humanitarian aid being airdropped over Gaza City, Palestine, on March 15, 2024, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement continues. Majdi Fathi/Reuters
Humanitarian aid being dropped by parachute over Gaza City in the Gaza Strip on 15 March 2024.

Israel has been working for months to create a parallel system for aid delivery in the Gaza Strip that excludes the UN and other international humanitarian organisations with a long-standing presence in the enclave, more than a dozen international and local aid workers have told The New Humanitarian. 

With 1.1 million Palestinians facing imminent, man-made famine in Gaza following a nearly six-month-long Israeli military campaign and siege, the sidelining of established humanitarian actors in favour of an ad hoc system under Israeli control has spread confusion and made the delivery of the limited amount of aid entering Gaza even less reliable and more chaotic, frequently with deadly results, the aid workers said. 

“There's been a clear desire to create an alternative structure that Israel has more direct oversight and control over,” said Jesse Marks, senior advocate for the Middle East with Refugees International, which recently published an extensive report on how Israel is obstructing aid efforts in Gaza. 

After being sidelined, the UN turned to local and tribal authorities, which have a quasi-governmental role in some parts of Gaza, and neighbourhood committees to try to deliver aid to northern Gaza. But on 1 April, a committee set up by the tribal authorities to coordinate aid deliveries said it would suspend those efforts after multiple deadly Israeli strikes targeting aid workers and people waiting for aid.

At least 196 aid workers have been killed during Israeli military campaign in Gaza in the past six months, a number unprecedented in modern war.

The parallel aid system Israel is attempting to create relies on private Palestinian contractors. Attempts to deliver aid to northern Gaza by sea – including a US effort to construct a temporary floating pier – also appear to be playing a role in Israeli efforts to circumvent the UN and NGOs that already have a presence in Gaza. 

Israel’s sidelining of the UN and other established humanitarian actors is particularly noticeable in northern Gaza, which has largely been cut off from aid for months and where starvation is most acute. What little aid has been allowed into the north has mostly been delivered by airdrops coordinated by third countries, with Israeli approval, or directly by private Palestinian contractors in coordination with Israeli authorities.

The use of private Palestinian contractors to deliver humanitarian assistance first garnered attention after the Israeli military opened fire on crowds that had gathered on a coastal road in Gaza City on 29 February to receive aid from a rare convoy. At least 118 people were killed. The trucks bringing the aid were provided by a Palestinian contractor in coordination with Israel and with the Israeli military providing security for the delivery.

“The experience of [Israeli Defence Force] security for humanitarian convoys has been deadly for Palestinians,” Marks said. 

Israel’s effort to create a parallel aid system in Gaza has coincided with a campaign to dismantle UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees and the largest aid organisation in Gaza. Following months of working to undermine UNRWA, Israel reportedly submitted a proposal at the end of March to the UN outlining a plan to dismantle the agency. 

Israeli authorities have repeatedly pointed to contractor-delivered convoys as evidence that UN agencies are responsible for the desperate lack of food, water, and medical supplies in Gaza by failing to deliver available supplies. They argue that Israel is not blocking access, and is in fact trying to "flood" Gaza with aid – a claim Marks described as “political gaslighting”.

The allegation that – by imposing a siege, destroying critical infrastructure, and obstructing aid efforts – Israel is deliberately starving the civilian population of Gaza is central to the South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court, where it is accusing Israel of committing genocide in the enclave. 

COGAT, the Israeli government agency responsible for coordinating with aid organisations, did not respond to The New Humanitarian’s request for comments for this story. And several of the aid workers and civilians involved in aid efforts in Gaza that The New Humanitarian spoke to asked to remain anonymous to protect their safety or to be able to speak candidly about an evolving and unclear situation that one described as Israel's “privatisation” of aid in Gaza. 

‘Wilful application of unpredictability’

At least 31 people are known to have starved to death in Gaza – a number that is likely an undercount. One famine expert recently told The New Humanitarian that it is now too late to avert a humanitarian disaster that will kill "thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people".

UN officials and NGOs have repeatedly said that an immediate ceasefire is needed to be able to begin to address the immense humanitarian suffering in Gaza. 

Enough food for everyone in Gaza for the next five to six months is waiting just outside the Israeli-controlled borders, the UN’s humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, told The New Humanitarian. The UN also has access to enough trucks inside Gaza to move that food around, if Israel would provide the security guarantees needed to ensure those deliveries would be safe. 

But aid shipments continue to be funnelled through a slow, inefficient security inspection process with unclear rules. One UN shipment, for example, was recently turned back because it contained medical scissors.

Inside Gaza, the UN coordinates aid convoys with Israeli authorities, who decide minute-by-minute where and when trucks can go – but Israeli soldiers continue to threaten aid workers on those convoys. That has included pulling them out of vehicles at checkpoints, pointing weapons at them, and firing in the air, explained Georgios Petropoulos, head of OCHA’s sub-office in Gaza. 

Israeli forces have also repeatedly struck aid warehouses, shelters for UN and NGO staff, and other clearly identified humanitarian sites, which are supposed to be protected under international law. The scale of those attacks has convinced some NGOs that it is safer not to update Israeli forces on their movements and assets in Gaza, believing that the list of protected sites is functioning more like a target list, explained Marks, with Refugees International.

Israeli authorities also frequently change checkpoint schedules, and they have done little to improve roads destroyed by bombardment and the heavy tread of military vehicles, making them impassable, especially in the rain, Petropoulos noted.

“It’s chaos here, and it is caused by a seemingly wilful application of unpredictability to a system that relies on predictability,” Petropoulos said.

Coordinating with contractors, tribes, and family clans

In its most recent update on 12 March, COGAT said it had coordinated 158 trucks delivered by Palestinian contractors to northern Gaza in March and 99 in February – a fraction of the at least 500 trucks which the UN says are needed every day to avert humanitarian catastrophe.

OCHA told The New Humanitarian that it has no role in coordinating these convoys, and has been kept out of the loop by Israeli authorities. 

The director of a large private transport company in Gaza, who requested to remain anonymous, told The New Humanitarian that at the beginning of the war, before the blockade of northern Gaza tightened in January, he coordinated with the UN to deliver aid – with the constant presence of Israeli drones following his convoys. 

Hours after the Israeli army withdrew from the region, residents are seen arriving amid destruction to check their homes and properties that they had to abandon in the northwest of Gaza City, Gaza on February 01, 2024. Israeli army has withdrawn from some regions in the north of the Gaza Strip and the northwest of Gaza City.
Mahmoud Shalha/Reuters
Residents return to their homes amid destruction following the withdrawal of Israeli troops from part of northwest Gaza City on 1 February 2024.

Now, his convoys are coordinated directly by Israeli authorities who dictate the trucks’ path and accompany them with soldiers, vehicles, and quadcopter drones. “The situation is different now. We only move under the protection of the Israeli army, and they have chosen different paths for us. We adhere to the instructions of the Israeli side,” he said.

He said his drivers regularly stopped near Israeli military checkpoints at two roundabouts in Gaza City. “Due to the hungry people attacking those convoys, we had to leave the shipment on the ground, while Israel fired shells at the people, leaving a large number of deaths,” he said, referring to the incident on 29 February.

The UN has documented at least 11 incidents in which people waiting for aid were killed at the Gaza City roundabouts; the Israeli military has denied responsibility for some of the killings. 

In addition to private contractors, Israeli authorities have looked to Gaza’s powerful networks of tribes and family clans to deliver aid – requests which those groups have denied, representatives told The New Humanitarian.

“Due to the hungry people attacking those convoys, we had to leave the shipment on the ground, while Israel fired shells at the people, leaving a large number of deaths.”

Gaza’s tribes and family clans have traditionally held significant political and social power, often taking on a quasi-judicial role to resolve family, neighbourhood, or business disputes; some are armed, and have in the past challenged Gaza’s official Hamas-led authorities. 

“Since the beginning of the war, Israel has been trying to advance the tribes as a basic alternative to governance in Gaza,” said Akef al-Masry, a senior official in the quasi-governmental Supreme Authority for Palestinian Tribes.

Hosni al-Moghani, an influential political figure and community leader who heads the tribal authority, said the influential families he represents are ready to work with the UN and other international agencies but will refuse to cooperate with Israel or to replace the Hamas government. 

Meanwhile, in response to requests by OCHA, neighbourhoods in northern Gaza have formed committees to organise aid distribution and prevent crowds from overwhelming convoys, according to Petropoulos. 

Several members of those committees told The New Humanitarian that they have controlled crowds along aid convoy routes and helped to receive and distribute aid. But they also said that they feared being targeted by Israeli forces following repeated, deadly strikes on people waiting for aid.

Abu Ahmed, who asked to be identified by his nickname, said that in mid-March, when UN officials told local leaders in his northern Gaza community to expect an aid convoy, the leaders asked people to wait at home and not to grab food from the trucks. “The citizens responded to this request, as they saw that it ensured a fair distribution,” he said.

An Israeli strike on 19 March, however, killed at least 23 people who had gathered to coordinate an arriving aid delivery in Gaza City, one of the neighbourhood committee members told The New Humanitarian. After similar Israeli strikes killed local aid workers in Gaza City on 30 March and 27 March, Gaza’s tribal authority said it would stop coordinating local efforts to provide aid. 

During a raid on al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on 18 March, Israeli forces also killed Faiq al-Mabhouh, the director-general of Gaza’s police operations, who Hamas authorities say was playing a key role in coordinating UN aid deliveries to northern Gaza. Israel says al-Mabhouh was a senior Hamas militant. 

The UN has coordinated with local police in Gaza to provide security for aid deliveries. However, the police have largely stopped providing security after being targeted in Israeli strikes. 

The sea route

With little progress made on negotiations to allow more aid through Gaza’s land borders, at least two international efforts are underway to bring aid in by sea – both of which appear to coincide with Israeli efforts to circumvent the UN and other NGOs.

The US military plans to land aid via a temporary pier, which may not be in operation until May. And on 12 March, in the first test of a separate European and UAE plan to deliver aid via Cyprus, a barge delivered by the NGOs World Central Kitchen and Open Arms landed about 200 tonnes of food aid just south of the Israeli government checkpoint into northern Gaza. A second shipment arrived from Cyprus off the coast Gaza on 1 April. 

Aid agencies told The New Humanitarian that they have been left in the dark about nearly every detail of the maritime plans – including what aid will be delivered, who will receive and distribute it on shore, who will oversee the operation, and what security screening or restrictions Israel will require.

Asked in a 22 March press briefing about how aid would be distributed from the US pier, a US government spokesperson had no answers. It’s unclear whether the UN will be involved at all – but a private American company, Fogbow, was reported to be a likely partner involved in distributing aid on the beach. A representative of Fogbow told The New Humanitarian that the company's plans to deliver aid to Gaza by sea are separate from US efforts but could be complimentary.*  

Fogbow’s top executives are the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East – who is also a former CIA officer – and a retired US Marine general. The company’s senior staff are largely ex-US military officers as well as a former UN humanitarian coordinator.

Aid workers for major NGOs said it’s unusual to see a contractor involved in this type of humanitarian effort and questioned why an unknown private firm was favoured to take on the job. “Why can't reputable organisations who have been there forever be able to provide that assistance?” asked one aid worker. 

Aid workers were also concerned by suggestions from US and Israeli authorities that the Israeli military would be involved in securing aid onshore in Gaza, and potentially in its distribution inland. 

“The key question is, how do you guarantee the security of convoys in a way that actually acknowledges the need to protect and preserve the lives of civilians who are facing catastrophic need and who are likely to take desperate actions like raiding a truck?” asked Marks, from Refugees International. 

“Why aren't other organisations being allowed to provide assistance? It's a big question mark.”

Aid workers on UN convoys have reported violence and some threats as desperate people have tried to secure food – but none have resulted in civilian deaths, unlike aid deliveries overseen by Israeli security, Marks noted.

According to a New York Times report, the Israeli military provided security and coordination for World Central Kitchen’s 12 March delivery. World Central Kitchen declined The New Humanitarians request for an interview and did not respond to follow-up questions about the 12 March aid delivery. 

While aid workers who spoke with The New Humanitarian agreed that any food delivered to Gaza – where the entire population is at risk of famine – is a good thing, they asked why COGAT had allowed one agency, World Central Kitchen, to deliver a relatively small amount of food, while largely denying the UN and other agencies. 

“Why aren't other organisations being allowed to provide assistance? It's a big question mark,” said one aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous, and noted that starvation as acute as in northern Gaza requires medical intervention – not just food.

“We need World Central Kitchen. We need the NGOs. We need UNICEF. There needs to be more, not less organisations working together,” said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for UNRWA. “The humanitarian needs on the ground are overwhelming. There's plenty of work for everybody.” 

‘The chaos is only a byproduct’ 

Aid workers said that the focus on the chaos surrounding each rare aid delivery to northern Gaza, and the question of how to get more aid in, distracts from a broader truth. “The real reason why all of this is happening is because Israeli authorities have taken a political decision at the beginning of the war not to allow enough supplies to come in,” said Touma, from UNRWA.

“This is a place that, before the war, had not known hunger,” she continued. “The war has made an entire nation of 2.2 million people reliant on handouts – and even the handouts are not enough.”

“The chaos is only a byproduct, and a very normal result of desperation, of hunger, of people living under a very, very tight siege. It's only normal that there is chaos. No one should be surprised,” she added. “This is the total politicisation of aid. This is using aid, and using food, as a weapon of war.”

*This line was update after publication to reflect additional information provided to The New Humanitarian by a representative of Fogbow. 

This piece was reported from Paris, London, and Cairo. Edited by Eric Reidy.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.