Little Aid Reaching Gazans Even as Israel Reduces Fighting, Officials Say

Days after Israel announced it would reduce fighting along a key road in southern Gaza to allow more aid to get to desperate Palestinian civilians, over 1,000 truckloads of supplies remain stranded at the border area. That is the result, aid officials and others say, of the extreme anarchy that has gripped Gaza in the ninth month of Israel’s military campaign.

The threat of looting and attacks by armed gangs has forced relief groups to stop delivering assistance in southern Gaza, aid officials say. Trucks using supply routes have been riddled with bullet holes. Businesspeople sending commercial goods into the territory and aid agencies have decided they cannot risk employees’ lives on the drive.

That has meant that the Israeli military’s decision to pause fighting for hours each day along the aid route has so far produced scant humanitarian benefit. There are now thousands of tons of food, medicine and other supplies stuck on the Gaza side of a border crossing mere miles from Palestinians who need them, the officials say.

The grim scenario is part of the domino effect of the Israeli campaign in Gaza, which has toppled much of the Hamas government without providing a governing plan or offering security for aid convoys. In much of Gaza, there are no police officers to prevent chaos, few municipal workers to clean up heaping mounds of rubble and trash and only the bare minimum of public services. Into the vacuum have rushed a proliferation of organized crime groups, whose affiliation, if any — whether to Gazan tribes or armed groups such as Hamas — remains unclear.

The aid is piled up at Kerem Shalom, an Israeli-controlled border crossing into southern Gaza, according to the United Nations and the Israeli authorities. Since Israel’s military offensive in the southern city of Rafah shut down another crossing last month, Kerem Shalom has become the only conduit for aid into southern Gaza.

Manhal Shaibar, who oversees a Palestinian trucking company that works at the Kerem Shalom crossing, said some goods were spoiling in the heat on the Gazan side. Some commercial trucks were managing to make their way out under heavy guard, despite the assaults by armed Gazans, he said, but the aid was stuck.

“People in Gaza can’t find food,” Mr. Shaibar said. “But the goods are strewn around here in the crossing.”

“It’s a disaster,” he said.

Farhan Haq, a United Nations spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday that the Israeli announcement of a pause “has yet to translate into more aid reaching people in need.”

A truck loaded with humanitarian aid moving into Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing on Monday.Credit…Amir Levy/Getty Images

A person involved in the effort to distribute aid said that armed criminal gangs were operating with near-total freedom in the Israel-Gaza border area where trucks must pass, and attacking them daily. The person described the attacks as coordinated and organized, not the spontaneous looting by desperate Gazan civilians that vexed aid convoys in earlier months of the war.

Armed attackers shoot at the trucks, force them to stop and sometimes beat the drivers before stripping the trucks of their contents, the person said.

And there is no one to call for help: The Hamas-run police force that helped secure the passage of aid earlier in the war melted away months ago after the Israeli military killed several officers. (The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was bound by confidentiality agreements.)

The “lack of any police or rule of law in the area” has rendered the roads surrounding the crossing highly dangerous, Mr. Haq said.

The number of international aid trucks reaching Palestinians in southern Gaza has plummeted since Israel’s Rafah offensive began on May 7. Only a small amount of aid has trickled through Kerem Shalom, aid officials say, including what a Western aid official said were 30 trucks sent via Jordan on Monday. Even the 1,100 truckloads stranded at the crossing — equivalent to what would have entered Gaza in just over two days before the war — represents a tiny fraction of what aid groups say is needed to stave off famine in Gaza.

Another border crossing, at Rafah on the Egypt-Gaza border, has remained closed since the Israeli operation began.

In an attempt to make up for the shortfall, the Israeli authorities began allowing more commercial goods to enter Gaza from Israel and the occupied West Bank. Unlike U.N. convoys, these trucks tend to travel with armed protection, allowing them to traverse the dangerous terrain.

Israel had paused commercial deliveries for about two weeks in an attempt to allow aid trucks to move through, according to a U.S. official working on the aid effort. But on Sunday, with no aid traveling along that road because of insecurity, Israel resumed sending the commercial trucks, 20 of which went into Gaza, the official said.

The U.S. and Western aid officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Saed Abu al-Ouf, a Gazan businessman who has sent about three truckloads of rice into the enclave since mid-May, said he had paused the shipments because of the armed gangs. In the past, he said, he had paid thousands of dollars in protection money to a group of Gazans to secure his trucks.

Bags of rice sent by Saed Abu al-Ouf waiting to be loaded onto trucks at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, on Monday.Credit…Ahikam Seri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But it is now simply too dangerous on the Gazan side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, he said. He is holding his latest truckload of goods on the Israeli side, hoping for some kind of order to be restored.

“There’s no security or any government ruling in Gaza,” Mr. Abu al-Ouf said in a phone interview from Cairo. “Armed people can take over your goods.”

“It’s far more dangerous than it was before, and we’d need a powerful policing apparatus to protect us. We’re merchants — we can’t play the role of police at the same time,” he said.

Aid groups have said Israel must do more to open the way to aid, and that the measures it has announced over the course of the war — such as the partial pause in fighting — have done little to help Gaza avert a famine.

Only a cease-fire, they say, will enable aid to get to more people who need it. In the meantime, said Bushra Khalidi, a senior policy lead at the Oxfam aid group: “It’s Israel’s responsibility to protect access and enable access, not just at borders but also inside Gaza.”

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