Gazans face hunger as aid groups withdraw in Israel’s conflict with Hamas-led Gaza

Gazans face hunger as aid groups withdraw in Israel’s conflict with Hamas-led Gaza

JERUSALEM — There is no drought in northern Gaza. No natural disaster or crop failure. Yet in less than six months of war it has been pushed to the cusp of famine, a process that usually unfolds over years.

“Never before have we seen such rapid deterioration into widespread starvation,” Sally Abi Khalil, Oxfam’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said last month.

The enclave’s headlong descent into hunger has happened in tandem with Israel’s destruction of Hamas’s de facto state. Israel’s inability to institute an alternative system of civilian rule — as well as its attacks on local grass-roots initiatives — has resulted in the breakdown of Gaza’s typically tightknit society, making it virtually impossible for aid groups to safely carry out their work.

International aid efforts were dealt a further blow this week when an Israeli airstrike killed seven workers from World Central Kitchen. Israel said the attack was “a mistake” and vowed a swift investigation. WCK and at least two other humanitarian groups have now suspended their operations in Gaza.

The Washington Post spoke to Palestinian businessmen, residents, clan leaders and aid officials about the deepening security crisis — which has left Israel with few options to restore order, aid groups unable to protect their workers, and desperate families to fend for themselves.

More than 1 million people face catastrophic levels of hunger and starvation between now and July, according to the world’s leading body on food emergencies. Doctors and health officials say children have already begun to die of malnutrition.

Israel has denied restricting the flow of aid and has downplayed the hunger crisis. Elad Goren, head of the civil department for COGAT, the Israeli agency that oversees the Palestinian territories, told reporters on March 14: “There is no starvation; there are challenges to accessibility.” He blamed food shortages on Hamas diverting aid and on sluggish humanitarian agencies.

After the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Israel imposed a complete siege on Gaza. Under American pressure, it allowed aid groups to resume their work, but onerous inspection procedures and the chaos of the battlefield made it difficult and dangerous work. On the best days, about 200 trucks have entered Gaza, a territory that received about 500 each day before the war. During some days in February, the number of trucks dropped to single digits.

Getting aid across the border is only a first step. Distributing supplies to people in need has become an even deeper challenge. The breakdown in civil order accelerated in February after a series of Israeli strikes on Gaza’s police force. Officers stopped escorting aid convoys, leaving them open to attack by criminal gangs and increasingly desperate civilians.

“When we talk about police in the Gaza Strip, police is Hamas,” said Shimon Friedman, a spokesperson for COGAT. “We will not allow for Hamas terrorists to be the ones who secure convoys.”

Hamas ruled Gaza for nearly 17 years and controlled all aspects of municipal life, from security to trash collection. Israel’s military says it has “dismantled” 20 of 24 Hamas’s armed battalions; re-creating a new system of civil authority presents a much different challenge.

“Israel’s intensification of acts against police officers is part of not allowing Hamas to return as a civilian body ruling Gaza,” political analyst Mustafa Ibrahim said by phone from Rafah, in southern Gaza.

Israel has said the last battle of the war will take place in Rafah, along the Egyptian border, home to 1.4 million displaced Palestinians and the site of Gaza’s most vital aid crossing.

“We will identify an alternative to Hamas so that the IDF may complete its mission,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed last week before meeting with top officials in Washington.

Israel has sidelined, and is seeking to eliminate, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has decades of experience distributing food, medicine and basic services to Palestinians in Gaza. Israel accuses UNRWA of complicity with Hamas and alleges that 12 of its employees played a role in the Oct. 7 attacks. The United States, UNRWA’s largest donor, suspended funding for the organization in January.

The last time Israel approved an UNRWA aid delivery northern Gaza was Jan. 29. On March 24, Israel told the group it would be barred from organizing any future convoys to the north.

Other aid outfits have tried to fill the void, but the future of those efforts is now in doubt after Monday’s strike on the WCK convoy in central Gaza. More than 200 tons of aid that arrived by sea was returned to Cyprus.

“This is not a stand-alone incident,” President Biden said in a strongly worded statement late Tuesday. “Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.”

At least 196 relief workers have been killed since October, according to the United Nations, both in the field and in their homes. Israel has hit humanitarian convoys and warehouses.

Aid routes have also become deadly flash points. On Feb. 29, more than 100 people were killed and 700 injured, according to Palestinian officials, after thousands of civilians converged on a convoy of trucks in Gaza City and Israeli troops opened fire. The IDF said it only fired warning shots and attributed most of the deaths to a crowd crush. Two weeks later, at least 20 people were killed while waiting for aid. Eyewitnesses said an Israeli helicopter and drones fired on the crowd; the IDF blamed Palestinian gunmen at the scene.

By then, a pattern had emerged, according to interviews with residents in the north. Word would spread that a convoy was coming and hundreds of people would gather around the Kuwait and Nablusi traffic circles, just beyond the Israeli checkpoints dividing the north from the south. Those closest to the trucks were most likely to grab a sack of flour, and most at risk of dying.

Israeli authorities deny firing on civilians and say security is the responsibility of the organizations sending aid. But in at least some instances, the convoys have been arranged by Israel.

An owner of a trucking company involved in the Feb. 29 convoy said COGAT called and asked him to deliver to northern Gaza. The agency told him it would create a “safe passage” with “multiple distribution points.”

“This won’t work amid starvation,” he said by phone from Egypt, speaking on the condition of anonymity to not jeopardize future work. “And so the disaster happened.”

COGAT declined to comment on the companies it works with.

On March 12, U.N. humanitarian coordinator James McGoldrick called a meeting at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, bringing together community leaders and organizers to discuss delivering food, health and medical support to northern Gaza.

“The idea was to try to incorporate some of the community leaders that we met, and some of the local NGOs, to try to get them to help us facilitate” deliveries, he said.

Afterward, McGoldrick said, he met with Gaza’s police chief in the north. “I told them what we were trying to do and tried to get their support to help with security crowd control.”

It appeared to work, briefly. After another deadly night at Kuwait circle, there were two successful deliveries to the north, according to eyewitnesses and residents. It was not clear who paid for the aid and oversaw its delivery. Residents reported seeing plainclothes civil police in the area.

“Among the measures we took after those meetings was that we spoke with some families who were forming gangs and raiding aid convoys and stealing them, and we agreed with them on the need to prevent their members from doing this,” said Yahya al-Kafarna, 60, a tribal official in the north. “This brought about a slight improvement, but unfortunately the army is still targeting people.”

On March 18, Israeli forces raided al-Shifa Hospital for the second time. They killed Faiq Mabhouh, a police official the IDF said was involved in military activities. Hamas said he was coordinating and protecting aid deliveries. The Post could not independently confirm his role.

“All of them [police] are working in the government led by Hamas,” said Basem Naim, head of Hamas’s political and international relations department. “But not all of them are Hamas.” The police could not be reached for comment due to the security situation.

Two weeks of heavy fighting around al-Shifa left Gaza’s largest medical complex in ruins. The short-lived agreement between police and local clans fell apart.

“The situation now in Gaza is full of security chaos,” Adham Shuheiber, the owner of a trucking company that has transported aid to the north, told The Post by phone from Rafah. “We do not feel safe during our work.”

Israeli officials have sought to cultivate their own relations with Palestinian clans and businessmen who have clashed with Hamas in the past. But the extent of their coordination is unclear — Israeli authorities will not disclose names and details — and it has yielded no visible progress in securing the enclave.

These efforts are part of a broader postwar strategy outlined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month, which called for replacing Hamas with “local entities with managerial experience.”

Netanyahu has vocally opposed the Biden administration’s day-after plan, which envisions the return of a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority, the Ramallah-based government that was violently ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007.

The chairman of the Supreme Tribal Committee in Gaza, Abu Salman al-Moghani, told The Post that, for the clans, working with the Israelis was off the table.

“Israel said that it wants the tribes to be an alternative to Hamas, and this, of course, will not satisfy Hamas, because the truth is that Hamas is still present on the ground and we cannot claim to say that we can be an alternative,” he said by phone from Rafah.

Without a strategy to secure aid deliveries, humanitarian officials fear the worst is still to come.

“It is a huge challenge to reverse a man made famine in Gaza in the absence of a political will,” Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of UNRWA, posted Tuesday on X. “Time is not on our side.”

Harb reported from London and Balousha from Amman, Jordan. Susannah George in Dubai and Sufian Taha contributed to this report.

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