Israel's Pledge to Guard an Aid Route into Gaza Falls Flat as Lawlessness Blocks Distribution

Trucks, carrying humanitarian supplies for the Gaza Strip, wait in line on the Egyptian side
Trucks, carrying humanitarian supplies for the Gaza Strip, wait in line on the Egyptian side, at the Kerem Shalom Crossing border as seen from southern Israel, Thursday, April 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military said Sunday that it was establishing a new safe corridor to deliver aid into southern Gaza. But days later, this self-declared “tactical pause” has brought little relief to desperate Palestinians.

The United Nations and international aid organizations say a breakdown in law and order has made the aid route unusable.

With thousands of truckloads of aid piled up, groups of armed men are regularly blocking convoys, holding drivers at gunpoint and rifling through their cargo, according to a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media on the issue.

The lawlessness is a major obstacle to aid distribution to southern and central Gaza — where an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians displaced from Rafah, or more than half of Gaza’s entire population, are now sheltering in tent camps and cramped apartments without adequate food, water, or medical supplies.

Here is a closer look at the security challenges facing the U.N. and aid organizations.

Israel's ‘tactical pause’ stymied 

Israel said Sunday it would observe daily pauses in combat along a route stretching from Kerem Shalom — the strip’s only operational aid crossing in the south — to the nearby city of Khan Younis. Before the pause, aid organizations had reported that the need to coordinate trucks’ movement with the Israelis in an active combat zone was slowing aid distribution.

The head of the U.N.’s World Food Program said Thursday that the pause has made “no difference at all” in aid distribution efforts. “We haven’t been able to get in,” said Cindy McCain in an interview with Al-Monitor. “We’ve had to reroute some of our trucks. They’ve been looted. As you know, we’ve been shot at and we’ve been rocketed.”

The U.N. official familiar with the aid effort said that there has been no sign of Israeli activity along the route. The U.N. tried to send a convoy of 60 trucks down the road Tuesday to pick up aid at Kerem Shalom. But 35 of the trucks were intercepted by armed men, the official said.

In recent days, the groups have moved closer to the crossing and set up roadblocks to halt trucks loaded with supplies, the U.N. official said. They have searched the pallets for smuggled cigarettes, a rare luxury in a territory where a single smoke can go for $25.

The surge in lawlessness is a result of growing desperation in Gaza and the power vacuum left by Hamas’s waning power over the territory, said Mkhaimar Abusada, an associate professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza who is now in Cairo.

With the enclave's police force targeted by Israel, he said, crime has reemerged as an untreated issue in Gaza.

“After Hamas came to power, one of the things that they brought under their control was the lawlessness of the so-called big clans,” said Abusada. “Now, that’s left for the Palestinians on their own to deal with it. So once again, we are seeing shootings between families, there are thefts, all the bad things are happening.”

UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, used to deploy local Palestinian police to escort aid convoys, but many refused to continue serving after airstrikes killed at least eight police officers in Rafah, the agency said.

Israel says the police are legitimate targets because they are controlled by Hamas.

Is any aid still getting into Gaza? 

The situation has largely paralyzed aid distribution to the south — particularly since Gaza’s nearby Rafah crossing with Egypt was closed when Israel invaded the city early last month.

The U.N. official said that 25 trucks of flour used the route Tuesday. Some private commercial trucks also got through — many of which used armed security to deter groups seeking to seize their cargo. An AP reporter stationed along the road Monday saw at least eight trucks pass by, armed security guards riding on top.

Before Israel’s offensive into the city of Rafah, hundreds of fuel trucks routinely entered the area.

The U.N. has now begun rerouting some fuel trucks through northern Gaza. Farhan Haq, a U.N. spokesman, said five fuel trucks entered Gaza Wednesday. The U.N. humanitarian office reported that these were the first fuel deliveries since early June and supplies remain scarce.

Aid groups say only a ceasefire and a reopening of the Rafah crossing could significantly increase aid flow to the area.

The military body in charge of coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, COGAT, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Security concerns also afflict aid from U.S. pier project 

The U.S. installed a pier off Gaza’s coast last month, aiming to provide an additional route for aid to enter Gaza. But the ambitious project has suffered repeated logistical and security setbacks.

Cyprus and US officials said the pier was up and running again Thursday after being detached for a second time last week because of rough seas. COGAT said Thursday there were “hundreds of aid pallets awaiting collection and distribution by the U.N. aid agencies.”

But there, too, security concerns are hindering distribution of aid.

The U.N. suspended its cooperation with the pier on June 9 – a day after rumors swirled that the Israeli military had used the area in a hostage rescue operation that left over 270 Palestinians dead. Photos of the operation showed an Israeli military helicopter in what appeared to be the vicinity of the pier.

Both Israel and the US deny the pier was used in the operation. But the perception that the pier was used for military purposes could endanger humanitarian workers, and threaten humanitarian groups’ principles of of neutrality, the U.N. says.

Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders.

Officials from the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations, including Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, met with Israel’s military chief and COGAT officials this week to seek solutions.

USAID said afterward that the meeting ended with promises of specific actions, but gave no details.


AP correspondents Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report

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