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Gaza demands a new kind of humanitarian action

Aid will not fix Gaza. We need a new definition of humanitarianism that addresses the underlying causes of suffering: occupation and impunity.

This photo shows large groups of people gathering to receive the humanitarian aid supplies that are being airdropped by plane through parachutes into the city of Khan Yunis. You can see two parachutes over the crowd. Ashraf Amra/Anadolu
Aid airdrops and other performative humanitarian actions in Gaza have served to focus attention on false solutions to the suffering caused by Israel's military campaign while distracting from calls to end the violence and address its underlying causes.

As Israel presses ahead with its assault on Rafah, images, videos, and testimonies make unbearably clear the nature of the humanitarian crisis touching every facet of life in the Gaza Strip: People have no homes, no food, no water, no medical care.

Nothing short of an immediate ceasefire coupled with a massive and sustained humanitarian effort could even begin to ease the burden of nearly eight months of endless Israeli bombardment and siege.

Yet, humanitarianism as it has been practised in Palestine is too often divorced from the political realities of occupation, blockade, and power asymmetry, and it has proven to be shockingly ineffective, unjust, and unbearably costly to Palestinians. Rather than supporting Palestinians to live in dignity, much of the international humanitarian ecosystem has been co-opted into an overarching system that subjugates them.

For years, the international community has distributed billions of dollars in aid while failing to address the underlying cause of humanitarian suffering in Palestine, namely Israeli occupation and almost total control over Palestinian life.

In some cases, the aid is genuinely well-intentioned. In others, it has been cynically used to distract from the fact that many of the same countries supplying it are also providing Israel with the diplomatic cover and weapons it needs to continue occupying, repressing, and killing Palestinians.

This reality has existed for decades. But it has reached a new, terrible nadir in Israel’s current military assault and siege of Gaza.

As the world watches Israel continue to cross supposed red lines with impunity, faith in the international order, the idea of human rights applying to all, and the very concept of accountability for powerful nations and their allies has, understandably, collapsed.

If the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality lead to a depoliticised, passive model of action in the face of such a challenge, then they are simply serving to help perpetuate injustice, and a new definition of what constitutes humanitarian action is needed.

The aid access distraction

The causes of the suffering and death Palestinians face in Gaza are clear: Israeli bombardment, ground assaults, and siege. But instead of pressuring Israel to end what many people around the world – including many experts – view as a genocidal military campaign, Western leaders continue to solemnly vow to pressure Israel to increase humanitarian access in Gaza. Israel, in turn, promises to comply. But nothing has meaningfully changed.

In fact, the crisis is deepening – due to Israel’s recent re-invasion of parts of northern Gaza, its ground invasion of Rafah, and its intensified aerial assault across the entire enclave. Israeli airstrikes have incinerated displaced Palestinians, including many children, in their tents, and around one million people have been forced to flee yet again – all this while the already anaemic aid response has been choked to the point of suffocation.

Pledges of humanitarian assistance, performative hand-wringing about aid access, ineffective air drops, and the absurd US pier project only serve to focus attention on false solutions while distracting from Western complicity in Israel’s actions.

Very little aid has entered since 6 May, when Israel began its invasion of Rafah, and the humanitarian response is now on the “verge of collapse”, according to a statement this week signed by 19 aid agencies.

This comes as almost half of Gaza’s population is living in famine conditions and with the other half teetering on the edge, increasing the likelihood that tens of thousands of people will now die of malnutrition and disease, in addition to the more than 36,000 who have been killed by Israeli bombs and bullets.

Rather than hold Israel to account for stubbornly ignoring their requests to increase aid access and not invade Rafah, Israel’s Western allies (most prominently, the United States) continue to: send Israel weapons; suppress protests expressing solidarity with Palestinians; denounce moves to recognise Palestinians’ right to self-determination; threaten retribution for efforts to submit Israel’s actions to the scrutiny of international law; and engage in mind-bending acts of doublespeak to try to maintain the fiction that Israel’s actions are legal and acceptable.

Against this backdrop, pledges of humanitarian assistance, performative hand-wringing about aid access, ineffective air drops, and the absurd US pier project only serve to focus attention on false solutions while distracting from Western complicity in Israel’s actions, and from calls for freedom and liberation by Palestinians and their grassroots allies.

They also provide a facade of morality to hide behind as Israel continues to cross all manner of red lines, while impeding – if not outright sabotaging – efforts to mount even a minimal aid response.

A decades-long pattern

What we are seeing in Gaza is part of a decades-long pattern: Israel creates humanitarian crises by enacting unchecked violence, imposing movement restrictions, throttling the Palestinian economy, and preventing the import of needed goods and equipment.

Israel then outsources its obligations as the Occupying Power under international law to provide Palestinians with food, healthcare, education, and other services to the aid sector while exercising control over the humanitarian agencies providing these services – including by blocking them from working entirely when it sees fit.

Aid agencies – by and large – comply with Israeli restrictions and diktats in order to maintain access. And the international community picks up the tab without pushing back much on the overall arrangement.

By working under these conditions, the aid sector – wittingly or not – helps to entrench the vast power asymmetry that has allowed Israel to continually seize Palestinian land while enacting ever-greater violence and restrictions on its people. In other words, undertaking humanitarian action without meaningfully working towards Palestinian liberation has helped to perpetuate the status quo that is causing the need for humanitarian intervention in the first place.

This was true in Gaza long before 7 October 2023. Occupied by Israel since 1967, the territory was put under Israeli military blockade in 2007, stifling the economy, creating food insecurity and poverty, and leading to a state of de-development. Israel allowed Gaza’s economy to function just enough to keep society barely functioning, and it allowed the aid and development sectors to help fill in the gaps.

The effects of whatever successful development projects and aid initiatives did exist have now been entirely erased. And to the extent that an aid response has been allowed to operate in Gaza since 7 October, it has solely been on Israel’s terms.

Expanding the definition of humanitarian action

While enacting so much death and destruction, will Israel really be permitted to continue to set the terms for how the aid sector is allowed to operate in Gaza, now and going forward? After decades of bending to Israel’s will, what might humanitarian action that is morally grounded look like in Palestine? And how can the aid sector push back rather than allow itself to be co-opted by Israel into its system of violence and subjugation?

Part of humanitarianism must, in effect, include doing work that leads to the end of the need for humanitarian intervention in the first place.

Something must change. The status quo is intolerable. Humanitarian organisations must do more to push back against the way things currently function. Undeniably, we have seen many organisations speaking more forcefully about what they are witnessing and facing in Gaza than we have in the past. Many have been making consistent statements about the dire conditions, the need for a ceasefire, and have even called for an end to weapons transfers to Israel.

But traditional humanitarian work and advocacy comes with its inherent limitations. Humanitarian agencies need governments’ permission to act, and they are accountable to donors with their own motivations. And traditional humanitarian work – focused on the provision of emergency goods and services in conflict and disaster settings – does not end wars and mass atrocities.

That is why it is far past time to think beyond the logistics of building a field hospital or calculating how many bags of flour are needed to stave off hunger to a more expansive definition of humanitarian action. Part of humanitarianism must, in effect, include doing work that leads to the end of the need for humanitarian intervention in the first place.

That means expanding the definition of humanitarianism to include popular efforts to apply pressure to bring about a ceasefire and an end to Israel’s occupation as well as the push to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes being committed. This would also broaden the scope of who is a humanitarian to include students protesting for divestment and lawyers writing legal briefs about the use of starvation as a war crime.

These actions tend to be considered within the realm of political or legal action. But what has become increasingly clear is that advocating for the end of violence – both acutely as it manifests in Gaza today, and more broadly as it relates to the overall structures of occupation and blockade in Palestine – should also be considered deeply humanitarian acts. Gaza is proving that it is time for a new definition of humanitarianism.

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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