An aid worker's story

Headed to north Gaza, aid trucks face gauntlet of armed looters and starving civilians

Staff member of humanitarian organization who has escorted several convoys inside Gaza says despair and violence are rising, with relief often not making it to distribution points

Gianluca Pacchiani

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Hamas members ride on top of a humanitarian aid truck in Rafah, Gaza Strip, December 19, 2023. (AP Photo)
Trucks delivering humanitarian aid supplies arrive in Gaza, January 7, 2024. (Belal Al Sabbagh, Yahya Hassouna, Mahmud Hams, Youssef Hassouna, Stringer, Mohammed Abed / AFPTV / WHO / ICRC / AFP)

Since December, Mark, an aid worker with a large international relief organization, has entered Gaza eight times to bring food, water, and other essentials to the enclave’s civilian population.

With each trip, he recalled recently, “the level of desperation has increased incrementally. Every time I went, it just looked worse and worse.”

According to a report released by the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, northern Gaza is on the brink of famine. Organizations say the Strip must be flooded with food aid to address the issue, but accounts from inside the Strip indicate it has become increasingly impossible for aid convoys to traverse the route from the south of the Strip, where Israel allows them to enter, to the north, where the worst hunger is.

According to Mark, who asked to use a pseudonym due to the sensitivity of the subject, as Gazans have grown hungrier, relief trucks are increasingly being emptied by both desperate civilians and armed looters before they can reach their intended distribution points.

“In the first convoys, we were able to arrive at the distribution points and actually set up the distributions. But from around February, it’s been very difficult to be able to even move more than a kilometer after the first checkpoint. Once you cross past it, everyone is desperate, everyone is hungry,” Mark told The Times of Israel.

Until last week, Israel refused to allow aid to reach northern Gaza directly via a land crossing with Israel in that area. As international pressure ramped up, Jerusalem pushed for a sea route into the north, while airdrops deployed by Jordan, the US and other countries over the region have brought in some food and water, though the UN and other international bodies say it is not nearly enough.

Israeli strikes have caused the disbandment of the Hamas-run police, which would often escort the trucks, accelerating the breakdown of law and order.

The result is that aid deliveries are exposed to lawless mobs and gun-toting criminals, making orderly distribution of aid rations to pre-approved beneficiaries a thing of the past.

“It’s now become impossible to reach the distribution centers,” Mark said, noting that these are mainly located around UNRWA structures such as schools, where many Gazans have been sheltering.

United Nations and Red Crescent workers prepare aid for distribution to Palestinians at UNRWA warehouse in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza Strip, October 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

“In the last convoys, we had swarms of people moving toward the vehicles, to the point where they could not move. In the past, this [crowding] would last for about three minutes and then clear up. But in one of the latest convoys, we timed how long we were stuck. It was about 20 minutes. Then we had to turn back because we just couldn’t go ahead. And the cargo was looted,” he said.

The crowd surges have not only become more frequent, but more dangerous for Gazans, who have become more willing to risk their lives in a scramble for aid, according to Mark. He said some people will attempt to pounce on the aid trucks when they are barely beyond Israel Defense Forces checkpoints, putting them in close range of often skittish soldiers.

“In one of our latest missions, we noticed the IDF sent two tanks on patrol just after the checkpoint,” he said. “And we could see people just hiding behind the rubble and not running away from the tanks because to them, the closer you are to the checkpoint, the more likely you are going to be able to jump on the trucks and get something.”

In this screenshot taken from video released by the IDF on February 29, 2024, Palestinians surround aid trucks in northern Gaza. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel denies shooting at people trying to get aid except when soldiers are threatened, but scores of Gazans have been killed in a number of recent incidents, including the so-called “flour massacre” of February 29, when around 12,000 Gazans swarmed a convoy in Gaza City. According to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, 115 people were killed in the ensuing chaos. Israel says most were crushed or trampled, and says Gazan gangs may have also opened fire.

Last week, another 21 Palestinians were killed by gunfire as they waited for aid in a square in Gaza City. According to a preliminary IDF probe, armed Gazans, not troops or a helicopter gunship, opened fire at the crowd.

Gang roadblock

To get aid to northern Gaza, organizations such as the one Mark works for must first subject the deliveries to intensive Israeli inspections, after which they are transported into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel or the Rafah crossing with Egypt, both of which are on the far southern end of the Strip.

Once in Gaza, the convoys are offloaded in a trans-shipment area located past the crossing. From there, the goods are picked up by Gazan trucks and taken to their destination. Aid workers accompany the convoy, which is usually made up of 10 trucks, in armored vehicles. They are unarmed.

To get to Gaza City, a convoy coming through Kerem Shalom needs to travel some 38 kilometers (23 miles) on rubble-strewn streets, through densely populated areas. The journey goes at a snail’s pace; a convoy destined for Gaza City would typically leave the trans-shipment area at around 3 a.m. and arrive only some eight hours later, Mark said.

He noted that the trips are usually made at night in the hope of encountering fewer civilians on the way.

On Mark’s last time joining an aid delivery, several weeks ago, the convoy was assaulted by armed men.

Palestinians loot a humanitarian aid truck, as it crosses into the Gaza Strip in Rafah, December 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

At around 4 a.m., as the motorcade of 10 trucks making their way to Gaza City passed Khan Younis and neared the central Gazan city of Deir al-Balah, the trucks were halted at an improvised roadblock set up by a local gang.

“We tried to remove the obstacles off the road, but a group of people with donkey carts standing nearby the road came in and threatened us with knives. We tried to negotiate with them and offered to hand out one ration per person off the trucks. But they didn’t want that. Basically they wanted everything,” Mark said, adding that each truck was carrying about 430 food packages.

These gangs, as well as groups of Hamas members, often hoard humanitarian aid from convoys, and resell it on the black market at highly inflated prices, ignoring the “not for sale” markings on each box of food or water.

“We told them that the aid delivery was for Gaza City, where there had not been any food in nearly three weeks, but they were not very receptive,” Mark recalled.

While they were negotiating with the gang, locals began showing up, but instead of grabbing the aid themselves, they began removing the roadblocks to allow the trucks through.

Mark surmised that the looters were part of a local clan, given that they were mainly armed with knives. Had they been gun-carrying Hamas members, locals would likely not have had the audacity to challenge them and open up the roadblock.

Palestinians transport bags of flour on the back of trucks as humanitarian aid arrives in Gaza City on March 6, 2024. (AFP)

Eight trucks managed to make it through and then the gang members got “desperate,” Mark recalled.

One of them pulled out a pistol, pointed it at the driver of the second-to-last truck, and threatened to kill him if he moved. The driver revved the engine and the looter fired a shot into the cabin, hitting the passenger seat.

“At that point, we realized it was going to escalate very badly,” Mark said.

The driver jumped out of the truck and was beaten up by the looters, who plundered his truck. He eventually managed to get back in his vehicle and return to Rafah. The other nine trucks made it to Gaza City.

The essentiality of coordination

To secure the safe arrival of deliveries by land in an increasingly dangerous environment, prior coordination with the IDF and local Gazan communities is crucial, Mark explained.

Ahead of each expedition, his aid organization must liaise with the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, an Israeli Defense Ministry body that liaises between the army and Palestinian civilians.

COGAT, as the body is known, informs the IDF of the convoy’s movements, including it on a so-called “no strike list,” and allowing the army to estimate when to expect it at the checkpoints or route it through an IDF-established corridor.

Armed, masked men can be seen atop trucks carrying humanitarian aid that arrived in the Gaza Strip via Egypt’s Rafah crossing, December 17, 2023. (Screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The IDF does not escort the deliveries of Mark’s organization — many organizations reportedly avoid working directly with Israeli forces for security, in order to maintain neutrality.

The result is that the convoys have no armed security, though NBC, quoting US officials, recently reported that Israel is considering hiring private security contractors to guard shipments.

Aid groups also coordinate deliveries with local Gazan clan leaders in the areas traversed by the convoy, Mark said, to make sure they are able to pass unmolested, usually for the cost of some of their aid.

“A deal is struck with local communities that we’ve identified along the roads. We appeal to them to provide safe passage, and in return they will receive a certain amount of ration for a defined period of time.”

A man hands out bags of flour during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)

When a deal is in place, Mark said his group will funnel as much relief through that area as possible to distribute to previously underserved areas in desperate need of aid.

A COGAT spokesperson told The Times of Israel that the IDF had nothing to do with how the convoys chose to secure themselves.

“The responsibility for distributing the aid is on the international organizations operating in the Gaza Strip and so is the securing of those convoys. We coordinate the movement through the humanitarian corridors,” the spokesperson said.

But even if there is a deal in place and a delivery has been coordinated with the IDF, things in a war zone can go awry. Each leg of a trip must receive a real-time green light by the IDF, and sometimes waiting times can be long before the motorcade is allowed to proceed. Of the eight convoys Mark has been on, he said, half were forced to turn back by the army at some point along the way.

A UN aid convoy enters north Gaza via a new military road used by the IDF along the Gaza border, March 11, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Sometimes the road conditions ahead are not good, sometimes there is something going on at the next checkpoint. We just have to wait, even six or eight hours, and then sometimes we don’t get a green light and we have to turn around,” he said.

While they wait to find out if they can move, the trucks are essentially sitting ducks, Mark said. Aid groups and truck drivers have no say over where or when they can move.

“Most of our vulnerability is actually when trucks stop at those locations, waiting for a green light from the IDF, because even if it’s at night, the trucks make noise, local people start waking up and come towards us,” he said. “But we can’t move, so we’re basically just stuck there.”

COGAT said that some convoys are required to be held back due to “operational reasons.”

“Israel coordinates convoys of aid to the north through our humanitarian corridors, which were created in order to allow for their secure movement,” the spokesperson said. “We encourage the organizations to send additional convoys as well.”

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