Halt in humanitarian aid after deaths of WCK workers leaves Gaza on brink of famine

The suspension of activities by the NGOs World Central Kitchen and Anera raises fears of a domino effect on other organizations operating in the Strip

Palestinian children wait for the distribution of food from a humanitarian organization in Rafah, southern Gaza, on March 5, 2024.Mohammed Salem (REUTERS)

The Jennifer, one of four ships operated by the U.S. NGO World Central Kitchen (WCK) and Spain’s Open Arms, had arrived Monday morning from Cyprus and docked in front of the breakwater that its local partners in Gaza built in March from the rubble of Israeli bombardments. On board, they were carrying more than 300 tons of food, including one of great symbolic significance for Muslims during Ramadan: dates, the first thing eaten at sunset when the fast is broken with iftar. But when only about 100 tons had been unloaded, they were forced to set sail again, taking much of the food with them. Three Israeli missiles had just killed seven WCK aid workers, four of them Westerners.

In the communiqué confirming the death of its seven workers, the organization founded by the Spanish-American chef José Andrés also announced the suspension of all its activities in Gaza. The announcement was followed the next day, Tuesday, by an analogous one from another NGO, Anera. On Thursday, another U.S. organization, Project Hope, said it was “assessing the safety of its staff” after suspending its work for three days.

The pause in humanitarian aid by these NGOs has raised fears that other organizations may follow suit at a time when Gaza is in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe and insufficient food and water supplies are trickling in due to Israeli restrictions, especially in the north.

Israel announced Friday that it will reopen the Erez crossing in northern Gaza and allow humanitarian aid to enter — albeit temporarily — the port of Ashdod, 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Palestinian enclave. It has also pledged to increase supplies entering the Strip through the southern Kerem Shalom crossing. This decision, which NGOs and the United Nations had been demanding for months in vain, came after U.S. President Joe Biden warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier that Washington’s continued support will depend on the measures Israel takes to protect civilians and aid workers.

Both the use of the nearby port of Ashdod and the opening of the Erez crossing could alleviate the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza, provided Israel allows the entry of a significant amount of aid. The northern region of Gaza, where the Erez border crossing point is located, is the worst hit by what was defined in March as an “imminent” famine by international organizations. At least half of Gazans are suffering from extreme food shortages due to Israel’s refusal, with few exceptions, to allow food trucks from humanitarian organizations access.

According to a UN communiqué dated March 20, in the first two weeks of last month, Israel gave permission to enter northern Gaza to only 11 of the 24 food convoys that international organizations tried to send into the region. The rest “were denied or postponed.” Among the vehicles that obtained authorization were several belonging to WCK. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people out of a population of 2.3 million are barely surviving in northern Gaza, of whom at least 210,000 are on the verge of, or already suffering from, famine conditions. Videos posted on social media and by Palestinian journalists have shown Gazans preparing soups from grass or making bread from animal feed, which in some cases is toxic for humans.

In addition, on March 25, the Israeli authorities denied entry into the northern Strip of trucks belonging to the territory’s main humanitarian organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Those living upstream of the Gaza River, which divides the Strip in two, were thus deprived of the agency’s flour deliveries, on which over 1.8 million Gazans were reliant by March. The aid distributed by UNRWA accounted for 50% of all food reaching the north, according to the UN.

Israel’s veto of UNRWA was another step in the campaign against the agency by the Israeli authorities, who accuse it of being infiltrated by Hamas but without providing evidence. Israel’s claims of the involvement of 12 UNRWA employees in the October 7 attacks prompted 16 countries to suspend funding although several — Canada, France, Australia, Japan and the European Union, among others — have since reinstated it.

With UNRWA’s funds depleted and the agency unable to access half of Gaza, the role assumed by food delivery organizations such as WCK and Anera had been gaining crucial weight. In mid-March, José Andrés’ NGO claimed to have distributed nearly 200 tons of food in the north of the enclave. On March 1, WCK participated in an airdrop of 500 pallets of food and medicine in the same region. One of Anera’s community kitchens is located in the northern Gaza town of Jabalia.

WCK has operated 60 community kitchens in central and southern Gaza, serving at least 43 million meals. Anera, in addition to the Jabalia kitchen, had six other such facilities in the southern towns of Rafah and Khan Younis. The organization has distributed over 23 million meals — 150,000 a day — its president Sean Carroll told EL PAÍS by telephone from the United States.

Guarantees for aid workers in Gaza

Carroll says Anera has been forced to “choose between continuing to feed starving people and protecting its workers and the beneficiaries themselves.” He added that if his aid workers are attacked, “the people they are trying to help may also die. All we ask is that Israel gives us some guarantee that it will not attack us.” Carroll, who says his aid teams are “eager to get back to work,” believes the call between Biden and Netanyahu could be “very important” in securing this commitment.

There are 23 United Nations agencies and dozens of international NGOs working in Gaza, as well as many more local organizations but food aid from WCK, Anera and, in the north, UNRWA is difficult to replace.

Last week, the UN International Court of Justice issued new interim measures against Israel, urging it to allow humanitarian aid, including food, into Gaza “without delay.” Material compliance with this order would be straightforward, were it not for the fact that Israel continues to ignore such requests from international aid organizations.

In March, UNICEF spokesman James Elder, who visited the Strip for a few days, recalled how, on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing at the Gaza border, long lines of trucks loaded with food awaited Israeli permission to enter. Another UN agency working in Gaza, the World Food Program, has repeatedly reiterated that it has sufficient food stocks to feed the more than two million Gazans once Israel opens the border crossings into the occupied Palestinian enclave.

Meanwhile, in northern Gaza, the UN reports one in three children under the age of two is already suffering from the most acute form of severe malnutrition: wasting, which occurs when the body is so depleted that it loses the ability to absorb nutrients. The condition is often irreversible.

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