As Israel drives out Hamas, lawlessness hampers Gaza aid efforts

Palestinians carrying bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an Israeli checkpoint in Gaza City. (Photo: Reuters)
Palestinians carrying bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an Israeli checkpoint in Gaza City. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

US and Egyptian officials are trying to resolve aid problems, but they are coming up against Israel’s goal of dismantling Hamas.

TEL AVIV—Israel’s drive to eliminate Hamas from power in Gaza is proving increasingly at odds with another objective it is under international pressure to pursue: ensuring delivery of humanitarian aid to Gazans struggling to find food and safety as the war in the south intensifies around them.

Blue-uniformed Gazan police vanished from the streets of southern Gaza earlier this month after as many as nine officers were killed in Israeli airstrikes, according to U.S. and United Nations officials.

To Israel, the police are a pillar of Hamas rule over Gaza, and it has accused them of stealing aid shipments intended for ordinary Gazans.

“We are at war with Hamas," said a spokesman for the Israeli military. “We are killing all Hamas operatives we can find that pose a threat to our forces and civilians."

But the police’s disappearance has disrupted aid deliveries, leaving convoys they once guarded more vulnerable to looters, U.N. officials say.

To get the aid flowing, U.S. and Egyptian officials have been discussing a possible solution under which the police would return to work but not in uniform and carrying only batons in return for a promise from Israel that they wouldn’t be attacked if they are guarding aid convoys, according to a U.N. official and a senior Egyptian official familiar with the talks.

But neither Israel nor the police have agreed to the deal, the officials said. Spokesmen for the Israeli military and the U.S. State Department declined to comment on the talks.

The challenges surrounding aid delivery come at a low point in the long, tense history between Israel and the U.N. Israel has accused at least a dozen employees at United Nations Relief and Works Agency, one of two U.N. agencies responsible for delivering aid, of participating in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel that left 1,200 people dead.

Deliveries of humanitarian aid to Gaza have plunged this month after Palestinian police the U.N. counted on to protect convoys stopped showing up for work, fearing attacks from Israel and gangs of looters, U.S. and U.N. officials say.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of Unrwa, said Monday in a social-media post that aid entering Gaza had dropped by half in February, compared with the month before. That brought a sharp response from Cogat, the Israeli military agency responsible for facilitating assistance to Gaza. “If UNRWA wasn’t such a failure logistically…more aid would reach the people of Gaza," it said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The decline in aid comes as Gazans are already facing widespread hunger. Some people have resorted to eating animal feed to survive. Airdrops of food and other supplies have made up for a small portion of the decline in aid brought in by truck. According to the U.N., there has been “a steep rise in malnutrition among children and pregnant and breast-feeding women," especially in the north of Gaza.

The war in Gaza has killed over 29,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Palestinian health authorities. The numbers don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

No U.N. trucks entered Gaza from Feb. 19 to 21, and though on Feb. 22, 170 went in, according to the U.N., it was still below the U.N. goal of 200 a day. On at least four days in the last two weeks, fewer than 10 aid trucks entered the enclave, U.N. officials said.

Col. Moshe Tetro, Cogat’s coordinator for aid to Gaza, said deliveries had increased over the weekend. About 135 trucks crossed on Sunday, including 17 vehicles that went to north Gaza, he said, but he declined to talk about whether the absence of the Gaza police was affecting aid shipments.

“There are a lot of challenges. Security is one of them," Tetro said. “As much as I understand, there is no reason to reduce the capacity of humanitarian operations."

Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’s political bureau, said in a statement Monday after meeting the Emir of Qatar that Israel was conducting a “starvation campaign…against the resilient and patient Palestinian people, resulting in an unprecedented humanitarian disaster."

Without police, truck drivers have little protection from criminal gangs and desperate Gazans who halt and ransack the convoys, sometimes only minutes after they leave distribution facilities at Kerem Shalom in southern Israel and the Egyptian side of the Rafah gate, the two border crossings where humanitarian aid enters Gaza, U.N. and U.S. officials said.

Before the convoys even enter Gaza, they travel along a two-mile corridor that the police had been guarding. Now that they are gone, local Bedouins have grown more aggressive about stopping the trucks and taking the contents, forcing the U.N. to suspend most convoys, said Scott Anderson, deputy director of Unrwa in Gaza, who is overseeing its aid deliveries.

“With the departure of police escorts, it has been virtually impossible for the U.N. or anyone else…to safely move assistance in Gaza because of criminal gangs," David Satterfield, the U.S. diplomat appointed by the White House to oversee aid to Gaza, said earlier this month in remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

Sending aid to northern Gaza has been especially difficult, Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Gaza and the West Bank, told reporters last Thursday, adding that the U.N. is hoping Israel will open a second crossing in the north to enable aid convoys to access the area.

U.N. aid for Gaza comes from Egypt to Kerem Shalom, where it is inspected by Israel and then trucked to a distribution center, and reloaded into convoys to be taken to distribution centers in central and southern Gaza.

Israel’s war cabinet on Monday said it approved a plan to enable aid flows within the strip, including in northern Gaza. Israeli officials have long claimed that Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, has siphoned off a portion of aid entering Gaza through U.N. and other channels.

Israeli officials say the pressure to get police off the streets is driven in part by their goal of eliminating any sign that Hamas remains in control of Gaza.

“Now that public order is in such a bad situation all over, it kind of clashes with two different interests. One is to get the humanitarian aid in; another is to stop Hamas from presenting any governing capability," said an Israeli military official.

Summer Said and Abeer Ayyoub contributed to this article.

Write to David S. Cloud at david.cloud@wsj.com

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