“Heartbreak and Heartlessness” in Gaza: Crisis in International Humanitarian Aid

In March 2024, after months of watching and funding the active destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure and the degradation of its population, the global powers started to express concern about the increasingly desperate reports from humanitarian agencies documenting increased starvation and dehydration.

The cause was no secret; Israel ordered a “complete siege” of the already blockaded territory just days after the Hamas attacks in Israel on October 7. Claiming his country was at war with “human animals,” Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant boasted cutting off electricity to the Gaza Strip, which Israel controls, as well as preventing import of food, fuel, and other critical supplies. At the same time, Israeli airstrikes started to destroy agricultural lands, food production facilities, and local bakeries.

Despite pleas from groups like the United Nations and many of its agencies (including the World Health Organization, World Food Programme, and United Nations Children’s Fund), and the inhumane conditions documented by people in Gaza through videos, photos, and testimonies, there has hardly been any political pressure on Israel to lift this siege. Donors and humanitarian organizations instead scrambled to work around Israel’s restrictions. Unsurprisingly, the efforts were insufficient; in mid-December, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing Israel’s use of starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza. Again, no serious action, aside from vague condemnations that often excluded Israel’s role in the crisis, was taken.

Israel has been using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza.

So, how to respond to this completely predictable and avoidable crisis, unfolding with daily updates? The answer was not through pressuring Israel to stop bombing, open more land crossings, or halt blocking and delaying aid—the actions that every humanitarian agency insisted were the bare minimum needed to change course. Instead, President Joe Biden decided that along with continuing to supply Israel with billions of dollars in military aid, the United States would follow Jordan, France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates in conducting air drops of food aid into Gaza. Experts immediately criticized the move as inefficient and expensive, with the United States’ three planes worth of drops equivalent to only the amount of goods that would be carried by 4-6 trucks. Gaza needs hundreds of trucks per day, at a minimum. Stark images were released of starving people rushing into the sea, swimming or by boat, to retrieve packets of food. Critics called the air drops  “performative” and “absurd.” Days later, the farce became tragedy, when five Palestinians were killed, and several more injured, when air-dropped pallets fell on them. Weeks later, an additional seven people were killed after they drowned trying to reach aid that fell in the sea.

Decades of literature critiquing humanitarian aid could never have imagined a better case study than the international approach to the occupied Gaza Strip in 2023/2024, as large parts of the small territory were being destroyed by the military of the same government that controls the entry of aid into it. Indeed, witnessing the global powers actively enabling and justifying what the International Court of Justice has deemed a “plausible” risk of genocide, while continuing to publicly lament the deteriorating humanitarian crisis it has created, has called into question the purpose and function of the entirety of the humanitarian aid system.

How Humanitarianism Has Worked in Palestine

Palestinian land has long been a site of empire, colonialism, and occupation. Over the last 500 years, Palestinians have lived under Ottoman, British, Jordanian (in the West Bank), Egyptian (in the Gaza Strip), and Israeli occupation. The ruling entities had little interest in developing the local population and were more concerned with hygiene and order. There were few social services offered, and many were inaccessible to most Palestinians, who lived in more rural areas. The first major international humanitarian effort in Palestine was the establishment of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 1949. That founding followed the creation of the state of Israel that caused the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced to flee their homes and disallowed from returning. UNRWA was primarily tasked with health and education duties for these suddenly stateless people and remains a main actor in social service delivery for Palestinians in the occupied territories and also in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

After the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip (along with the Egyptian Sinai and the Syrian Golan Heights), Israel administered the occupied territories, primarily under strict military rule. Globally, the Palestinians were no longer seen as merely a humanitarian problem, but now a political one. Despite efforts to call for the end of the occupation, there was little international movement to compel action. Much of the aid to Palestinians around this time was distributed by Arab nations, especially after the 1978 Camp David Accords, which brokered peace between Egypt and Israel. It was in the 1970s that much of Palestinian civil society as it is known today was developed.

Everything changed after the period of the so-called “peace process” that culminated in the mid-1990s with the Oslo Accords. Donors were eager to support the newly formed Palestinian Authority (PA) and the promised technocratic state-building initiative that came with it. Since 1993, foreign donors have funneled more than $50 billion to the Palestinians under these auspices. Yet, despite the newfound responsibilities of the PA established with the Accords, and the economic development promised by donors, Israel never lifted its restrictions on Palestinian movement in the occupied territories, including for export and import. The many failures of the Accords became apparent quickly, including Israel’s compelling Palestinians to use the Israeli currency, shuttering a promised “safe passage” between the West Bank and Gaza that was only briefly opened, and bombing the new Palestinian airport built in the Gaza Strip. Less than a decade later, in 2002, Israel began construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank. A few years after that, in 2007, Israel began its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

With the paradox of having state-building duties without the sovereignty of a state, and Israelis continuing to clamp down on Palestinian movement and to seize Palestinian land, the nascent post-Oslo state building project quickly reverted to humanitarian dependence, with donors filling in gaps in the economy, health and education systems, infrastructure, and other sectors that were stunted or stifled by Israeli restrictions. Inconsistency became a key feature, with donors increasing aid when Palestinians took actions amenable to the international community expectations and decreasing it when Palestinians took actions deemed by the international community as unhelpful or unilateral—essentially, any action of resistance to their subjugation.

As Palestine became a more partisan issue, aid pledges also depended on who was in control of Western governments at any given time (while military aid to Israel was never in doubt), making sustainable efforts nearly impossible. When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, for example, his explicit bias for Israel resulted in his cutting US funding for UNRWA in 2018, which was partially reinstated by his successor Joe Biden in 2021. At the time, the new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said, “U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values. It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development, and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability.” He would be in the same government position when the United States opted to end funding for UNRWA less than three years later, as hundreds of thousands in Gaza faced famine conditions.

The Failure of Humanitarian Aid in the Gaza Strip

In the immediate aftermath of October 7, the sentiment of global powers was squarely behind Israel. Yet as Israel dropped tens of thousands of pounds of explosives on a territory just around 140 square miles, the human toll became evident immediately, as did the destruction to homes and vital infrastructure. Hospitals begged for fuel to keep generators running, and humanitarian agencies began warning of hunger. Just weeks after the bombing started, Oxfam was already arguing that starvation was being used as a weapon of war. Around the same time, the US government was floating concerns that Israel “lacks achievable military objectives in Gaza.”

Despite these alarming developments, the global powers completely acquiesced to Israel’s dictation of how aid delivery would go. After weeks of pressure from the United States, Israel finally opened the Rafah border to allow some 20 trucks in two weeks after it imposed the siege, which was received as some kind of success. No trucks with fuel were permitted to enter until mid-November 2023, after multiple reports had already emerged of people dying in hospitals from lack of power. Israel, having focused its airstrikes (and territorial claims) on the north, was only allowing aid to be distributed in the south, where it had forced people to flee. Many were attacked and killed while evacuating through this so-called humanitarian corridor. Eventually, a temporary ceasefire agreement was reached, partially to allow for greater import of humanitarian aid—although UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres said at the time that, “It will be impossible to satisfy all the dramatic needs of the population.” After just a week, the ceasefire ended and bombing continued.

To most of the entities that lecture other countries about human rights and freedom, Palestinian life and dignity is simply not a serious consideration.

In the many months since, as thousands more Palestinians have been killed and more parts of the Gaza Strip became completely uninhabitable, almost nothing has changed in terms of meaningful global action and the ability for humanitarian agencies to meet the needs of the population. Israel continues to block, deny, and delay aid, with copious evidence from countless credible sources, while continuing to deny it is doing so. When Guterres visited the Egyptian side of Rafah during Ramadan, he described the situation clearly: “Here, from this crossing, we see the heartbreak and heartlessness of it all. A long line of blocked relief trucks on one side of the gates, the long shadow of starvation on the other.” In late March, Israeli authorities told UNRWA that they would no longer allow any deliveries to the north. The Director General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the move as “denying starving people the ability to survive.” But it was not just Israeli policies blocking aid, but Israeli people, with organized groups of citizens blocking aid convoys.

To implicate Israel even further in perpetuating starvation and continuous massacres of civilians, Israeli troops fired on desperate Palestinians awaiting aid deliveries of flour in what quickly became called the “flour massacre.” There were no consequences for this horrific incident. Unsurprisingly, multiple reports of Israel attacking and killing Palestinians waiting for aid began to emerge. Even when attacking starving people desperate for food, deemed an issue of global concern, Israel continues to enjoy complete impunity.

It is not entirely accurate, however, to say there has been no global response to this clearly broken humanitarian aid system. While state action meaningfully supporting Palestinians has been minimal, actions supporting Israel’s efforts to bomb, starve, and trap Palestinians have been robust, including continued flows of arms and diplomatic cover for Israel at institutions like the UN Security Council. (On March 25, the United States abstained on a council resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza; an unlikely outcome considering Israel’s actions.) Additionally, in response to dubious claims that less than a dozen members of UNRWA, an organization of 30,000 employees, were involved in the October 7 attacks, the US cut funding to the agency, followed by several other of its primary donors. There was little to no evidence of these claims, leading some nations to reinstate aid weeks later. The United States, on the other hand, instead passed legislation halting all funding to UNRWA until at least 2025. The legislation also called for the United Nations and other agencies to report on purported “anti-Israel bias.”

At every step, in every way, the use of humanitarian aid in Gaza, and in all of Palestine for decades, is a reminder that to most of the entities that fund humanitarian aid agencies and lecture other countries about human rights and freedom, Palestinian life and dignity is simply not a serious consideration. For years, many thought that while Israel continued seizing land, building settlements, killing Palestinians, denying independent investigations, imposing movement restrictions, and becoming increasingly right-wing such that its most prominent politicians are openly racist, there were some lines that the world would not permit it to cross. What is happening to Palestinians in Gaza today—and the other horrors faced by Palestinians in the West Bank—is evidence that this is seemingly not the case.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Anas Mohammed