Trucks, Piers, and Parachutes Will Not Solve Gaza's Crisis

commentary

Mar 25, 2024

Aid is air-dropped in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 26, 2024, photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Aid is air-dropped in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 26, 2024

Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on March 22, 2024.

Gaza faces an increasingly dire humanitarian situation: Some 80 percent of the population has been displaced; food, medicine, and shelter are all in short supply; the United Nations estimates that some 576,000 people are on the brink of famine; and the World Food Program has concluded that some 70 percent of northern Gazans face “catastrophic hunger.” To get aid into the enclave, the United States and other countries are now turning to increasingly creative measures, including airdrops and floating piers off the Gazan coast. As the Washington Post recently opined, the United States seeks “a logistically complicated workaround to…a fundamentally simple problem: Getting aid into Gaza by land.”

But as with everything in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problem is rarely as straightforward as it might seem. In this case, the humanitarian disaster in Gaza is not one problem, but at least two. There is the throughput problem—getting aid into Gaza—and then there is the distribution problem, which involves getting aid to those who need it most. Both problems come with their own unique challenges, but the latter—which has attracted far less attention—will be more difficult to solve.

Before the war, roughly 500 trucks passed into Gaza every day from Israel and Egypt. Now, according to United Nations data, that number stands at roughly 150. In February—during the height of the fighting in Khan Younis, which the Israeli military described as a Hamas stronghold—the number of truckloads slowed to a trickle; on some days, fewer than 10 trucks made it into the enclave.

From these basic facts, two dueling narratives have emerged. Humanitarian aid groups, as well as various governments around the world, allege that this slowdown of trucks in Gaza is due to arbitrary and time-consuming inspections by the Israeli military. In addition to the Kerem Shalom crossing on Israel's border with southern Gaza, some aid also flows across the Egypt-Gaza border at Rafah—but this is insufficient to supply Gaza's needs. If Israel was only to relax its inspections, open the Erez border crossing to northern Gaza, and allow aid to flow through Israel's nearby deep-water port of Ashdod, the humanitarian problem would be solved, these critics argue.

By even the most cursory analysis, the humanitarian needs today in Gaza vastly exceed those prior to the conflict.

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Israeli government officials counter that the inspection regime is necessary, given Hamas's documented penchant to hide military supplies inside humanitarian aid. The Israelis also note that not all of those 500 daily prewar truckloads were filled with humanitarian supplies. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), which oversaw much aid distribution, only averaged 100 truckloads a day before the conflict began.

By some measures, humanitarian aid into Gaza has actually increased from its prewar levels. Much of the humanitarian catastrophe currently unfolding in Gaza, the Israeli government argues, is due to Hamas diverting the food and other supplies being trucked in—instead of distributing these goods to the civilian population.

On closer inspection, however, key aspects of the Israeli narrative begin to fall apart. Even if aid convoys are up from prewar levels, demand has shot up much more. With more than 32,000 Gazans killed and another 71,000 wounded, the need for medical supplies alone has increased dramatically compared to peacetime. Fighting has also destroyed warehouses and stores—and with them, many of the existing food stockpiles. At least three-quarters of the housing stock in Gaza also has been damaged or destroyed, exponentially expanding the need for temporary housing. By even the most cursory analysis, the humanitarian needs today in Gaza vastly exceed those prior to the conflict.

By contrast, Israel's reticence to move aid into Gaza seems to be driven less by strategic reasons than it is by political ones. Just days before the attack on Oct. 7, 2023, Israel reopened the Erez crossing after it had been closed for two weeks due to violent protests instigated by Hamas. But on Oct. 7, Hamas attacked the newly reopened crossing, killing 10 Israeli soldiers there. To an Israeli public still reeling from Hamas's atrocities, reviving this failed olive branch would carry a serious political cost for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard right government.

Admittedly, there are other, more tangible constraints on the Israeli side for humanitarian relief. As has been widely reported, Israel has been consistently surprised by Hamas's military capabilities. Simply put, decades of Israeli border restrictions did not prevent Hamas from assembling thousands of rockets and building hundreds of miles of tunnels. While this rationale does not absolve Israel of some of its seemingly arbitrary restrictions on aid convoys over the past several months, it does mean that the Israeli inspection regimen on everything going into Gaza—humanitarian, commercial, or other deliveries—will be tighter than before by strategic necessity, not least because the old rules failed.

Further complicating matters, Gaza is a small place with a limited number of border crossings. At least half its roads have been damaged after nearly six months of war, according to the World Bank. Those that remain also need to support military use. Militaries of any size—the Israel Defense Forces included—consume vast supplies of food and petroleum and spare parts in the field in order to sustain combat operations. So the Israeli military must move its personnel and materiel on some of the same roads that humanitarian aid convoys would use. Given that Hamas ambushes Israeli convoys, the last thing that any military would want is for its vehicles to be snarled in a traffic jam.

Most of these bandwidth constraints are fixable. New routes for aid are already being developed. Israel has also demonstrated that it can build new roads in Gaza despite the war, if it wants to. And some of the outside-the-box solutions—from floating piers to air drops—can augment the land routes into Gaza as well.

But even if the Israeli narrative on getting aid into Gaza is not entirely convincing, that does not mean that aid does not also have a distribution problem. Israel alleges that Hamas operatives have attacked aid convoys and stolen food from them. But even bracketing the degree of direct Hamas involvement, Gazan civilians have rushed aid convoys, ransacked warehouses, and even stormed private houses to get to the airdropped packages. None of this should be surprising. After all, people will go to great lengths to avoid starvation.

The lack of security impedes humanitarian aid in other ways as well. The sheer physics of parachuting aid out of moving airplanes means that these packages stand a high chance of being diverted, especially if the drop zones are not secured on ground. Distributing aid also requires warehouses to store these supplies, but the UNRWA reports that more than 150 of its facilities have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting.

Given that Israel alleges that many of these warehouses were also used by Hamas for weapons storage, Israel likely will not allow these facilities to be rebuilt or promise not target them again, absent some sort of credible guarantees that Hamas will not exploit them. And as the United States' pause on UNRWA funding demonstrates, donor countries may also be reluctant to provide aid in the first place if those supplies risk being diverted to Hamas or other militants.

Without restoring law and order in Gaza, then, getting aid to the most vulnerable will remain a challenge, even if Israel and the international community increase the amount of aid entering the enclave. Aid effectiveness will thus prove a far thornier issue to solve.

Ideally, the Palestinians themselves should provide the security to enable aid distribution. But right now, it is not at all clear just who those Palestinians would be. Before the war, Hamas largely controlled Gaza's local authorities. Giving those same individuals power over a vital resource such as food will, by default, also help reestablish Hamas's hold over the enclave.

Israel has so far eschewed the idea that the Palestinian Authority could control Gaza, citing the West Bank government's payments to Palestinians whose relatives have been imprisoned for terrorism. But even if Israel dropped its objections, it is not clear if the Palestinian Authority's security forces are up for such a mission.

Israel has also floated the idea of turning to non–Hamas aligned Gazans to run Gaza. But given Hamas's success in crushing all political opposition and independent civil society since the 2007 fighting between Hamas and Fatah over the control of Gaza, this would very likely empower organized crime syndicates—hardly the people you want caring for the vulnerable.

Alternatively, Israel could turn to an external actor to protect aid distribution. Israel has talked about hiring private security contractors to protect aid shipments. But as we saw in Iraq and elsewhere, the use of contractors can be a risky, resource intensive, and not always successful proposition—not to mention the new controversies such a step would surely generate.

More likely, a state would need to provide a peacekeeping force. The Biden administration has explicitly ruled out U.S. “boots on the ground” in Gaza, and so far, no other country has stepped up. That's because inserting troops into an ongoing war is guaranteed to be a losing proposition: Israel would likely blame this third party for any residual Hamas terrorism, while Palestinians and their supporters around the world would likely accuse the country of collaborating with Israel. And all the while, the peacekeepers would be caught in the crossfire, and any hiccup in the flow of aid would now become the peacekeeping forces' fault.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal reported on March 21 that some Israeli security officials have proposed an all-of-the above strategy. The plan foresees a mixture of non-Hamas Gazan leaders, as well current and former Palestinian Authority security officials, taking over aid distribution—and ultimately, governance in Gaza—with the support of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab governments.

Ideally, the Palestinians themselves should provide the security to enable aid distribution. But right now, it is not at all clear just who those Palestinians would be.

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But so far, the plan has gotten a cold reception. Hamas obviously opposes being cut out of governing Gaza, but even some of the Palestinian leaders in question have stated that they do not want the job. The Netanyahu government is only lukewarm to the idea because it includes the Palestinian Authority.

All that is left is the Israelis themselves. Unlike the local Palestinian option, the Israel Defense Forces certainly have the capability to provide the security necessary for humanitarian actors to do their work. Unlike external security guarantors, the Israeli military is already in Gaza, and by default, it already owns the humanitarian problem, whether it wants to or not.

But if the Israeli military takes over providing security for aid distribution, that means that it will end up patrolling Gazan streets for at least the next few months—and more likely for the next few years or however long it takes until a Palestinian force is ready to assume the same role. All of which leads to an outcome that nobody wants: the reoccupation of Gaza.

And this, in turn, leads to another basic truth: While there are few straightforward problems in the Middle East, there are even fewer straightforward solutions. In this case, if the international community wants to solve the humanitarian problem in Gaza, it will need to go well beyond thinking of the issue strictly in terms of trucks, roads, and floating piers. It will instead need to choose between a series of bad options: offering up some sort of external peacekeeping force, accepting a temporary Israeli reoccupation, or doing nothing at all and letting aid fall into the hands of a variety of nefarious actors.

None of these are particularly appealing outcomes. But in the Middle East, nothing is ever simple.


Raphael S. Cohen is director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project Air Force.