March 8, 2024

IntelBrief: As Aid Airdrops Continue, a Humanitarian Catastrophe Mounts in the Gaza Strip

AP Photo/Fatima Shbair, File

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • As the humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepens, the U.S. military began dropping food along the Strip’s coastline in a joint operation conducted by U.S. and Jordanian air forces over the weekend, according to a statement by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
  • UN agencies and aid groups have highlighted that the airdrops are insufficient to meet the scale of the humanitarian crisis, as food insecurity has pushed at least a quarter of Gaza’s population toward famine, according to UN officials.
  • The deterioration of conditions has led to chaos and violence in the Gaza Strip, particularly around aid deliveries, underscored by the incident around an aid convoy near Gaza City last week that reportedly left more than 100 dead.
  • The international community, including Israel’s allies such as the European Union and the UK, has increased pressure on Israel to create new aid delivery routes.

As the humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepens, the U.S. military began dropping food over the Strip in a “combined humanitarian assistance airdrop” conducted by U.S. and Jordanian air forces over the weekend, according to a statement by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). The initial drop consisted of more than 38,000 meals along Gaza’s coastline, with additional aid – over 36,8000 meal equivalents – dropped on Tuesday in another joint U.S.-Jordanian operation. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France also joined a Jordanian operation to drop tons of prepared meals and other essential humanitarian supplies along Gaza’s coastline on Tuesday, according to the Jordanian military. Several countries, including France, have stated that they will ramp up joint efforts to get humanitarian aid into Gaza. According to a statement by CENTCOM, there are efforts to plan for additional aid delivery missions. U.S. officials have said that they are exploring other options to increase aid to Gaza, including through sea routes and pushing Israeli authorities to open more paths for cross-border aid. During last night’s State of the Union address, President Biden announced that the U.S. would open up a port on the coast of Gaza to assist with getting desperately needed aid into the territory.

Aid groups and other experts have highlighted that the airdrops are insufficient to meet the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Amidst continued Israeli airstrikes, the number of Palestinians killed during the conflict has reportedly surpassed 30,000, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Many consider the data to be an undercount, as thousands are estimated to remain unaccounted for. Many bodies are believed to be trapped underneath the rubble, to have been buried quickly in side streets, or to be in areas that are currently unsafe to reach. In addition to the staggering death toll, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), estimates that at least 1.9 million Palestinians – 85 percent of the population – have been forcibly displaced in the conflict.

Food insecurity has dramatically increased in Gaza since the beginning of the war, with more than a quarter facing severe levels of deprivation and starvation, according to UN agencies. During a briefing to the UN Security Council last week, OCHA deputy chief, Ramesh Rajasingham, stated that at least a quarter of Gaza’s population is “one step away from famine.” He went on to state that one in six children under the age of 2 in northern Gaza is suffering from acute malnutrition. Food insecurity has become so widespread and supplies so diminished that aid groups report people have resorted to eating leaves, donkey feed, and food scraps. A formal determination of famine in the Strip could be declared next week – a step that occurs after an assessment by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which consists of over a dozen UN agencies, regional bodies, and aid groups. Compounding the situation, Gaza’s total economic output has shrunk by more than 80 percent in the last quarter of 2023, according to a recently published report by the World Bank. According to the report, “the Palestinian economy experienced one of the largest economic shocks ever recorded in recent economic history,” with agricultural infrastructure severely impacted by the conflict – “exacerbating unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity cycles.” In the short term, the report estimates that “every resident in Gaza will live in poverty,” with poor outlooks for the mid-to long-term as the conflict continues.

Water scarcity and the destruction of sanitation infrastructure have severely impacted living conditions and led to the outbreak of disease. At least half of the water and sanitation facilities in Gaza have been destroyed, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and many struggle to find clean drinking water. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates that approximately 70 percent of Gazans are drinking salinized or contaminated water. The lack of clean water and sanitation facilities has led to a spike in extreme dehydration and infectious diseases, including hepatitis and respiratory illnesses, according to Médicins Sans Frontières. UN agencies have also warned that the collapse of water and sanitation infrastructure could lead to an outbreak of cholera.

Although UN agencies and aid groups have stated that aid is generally able to reach the southern city of Rafah, few aid convoys have been able to reach northern Gaza due to the fighting, logistical bottlenecks, and Israeli military restrictions in the area. Moreover, the deterioration of conditions has led to chaos in the Strip, particularly around aid convoys and deliveries when they do occur. The World Food Programme (WFP) paused aid deliveries to northern Gaza in late February, citing the “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order,” as well as the looting of several trucks while en route. Civilians ambushing aid convoys have reportedly become a regular occurrence, with some Gazans seizing food from the trucks and, at times, attacking drivers. An incident near Gaza City involving mass crowds around an aid convoy resulted in the deaths of reportedly more than 100 people last week. The details of the incident and the subsequent death toll have been fiercely debated, with Palestinian authorities claiming that those killed were shot by Israeli troops and the Israeli military stating the deaths were mostly due to a stampede as crowds rushed toward the aid trucks. The incident further underscores the confusion and desperation in Gaza, the shrinking humanitarian access in the conflict, and the increasingly untenable environment for principled aid delivery.

As discussions of further airdrops continue, UN agencies, including WFP and aid groups, have stated that increasing the number of border crossings would be the most effective and cost-efficient way to meet the mounting need in Gaza. As of now, there are only two border crossings into Gaza, Kerem Shalom and Rafah (the Nitzana crossing is open as an inspection site), with frequent and sometimes prolonged closures or blockages hampering the cross-border movement of aid convoys, according to OCHA. As international pressure mounts to increase humanitarian assistance into the Strip, Israeli officials have reportedly stated the government will begin allowing aid to move more directly into northern Gaza from Israel and that it would cooperate on the creation of a sea route. The European Union has particularly increased pressure on the Israeli government for a sea route from Cyprus to Gaza. EU Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen is expected to visit Cyprus today to inspect installations at the port of Larnaca, where aid would depart for Gaza if the route were established, according to Cypriot officials. The newly proposed U.S. effort, along with partner countries, will provide a much-needed option for getting additional assistance into Gaza. Against the backdrop of protests in capitals across the world this past weekend calling for a ceasefire, UK foreign minister David Cameron recently stated that Israel’s allies are losing patience as conditions in Gaza worsen with little improvement on the ground, demonstrating the increased political tensions over the humanitarian situation. As ceasefire talks appear to be at a standstill – with some sources stating that a deal is unlikely to occur before the start of Ramadan this weekend – the risk of a declared famine grows, with catastrophic humanitarian outcomes, if there is a failure to increase sustainable pathways for aid into Gaza.