Analysis'It can turn into total chaos, where everyone is threatened'

In Gaza, as elsewhere, aid missions are dangerous for soldiers

Deadly Gaza City incident underscores the risks and challenges IDF troops face when trying to secure delivery of food and medicine to hungry Palestinians

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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

In 2003, in the early stages of the Allied invasion of Iraq, American journalist P.J. O’Rourke joined a Kuwait Red Crescent aid convoy on a journey to the southeastern Iraqi city of Safwan.

The convoy, he wrote in The Atlantic, stopped in the countryside instead of entering the city itself because the previous convoy to Safwan had been looted in what he called “a riot.”

Standing on top of one of the aid trucks, O’Rourke described in great detail the chaos on the ground as the workers tried to distribute the packages.

“Below, a couple of hundred shoving, shouldering, kneeing, kicking Iraqi men and boys were grabbing at boxes of food,” he wrote.

“Every person in the mob seemed to be arguing with every other person. Giving in to impulses to push themselves forward and push others away, shouting Iraqis were propelled in circles. A short, plump, bald man sank in the roil. A small boy, red-faced and crying, was crushed between two bellowing fat men. An old man was trampled trying to join the fray.”

The Iraqis, said O’Rourke, weren’t starving. Still, every time the truck doors were opened, “everything went to hell.”

British troops stood nearby, trying to stay out of the way. But when fights broke out in the crowd, they had to intervene to force the combatants apart.

Then things got worse. Gangs arrived from the city on forklifts, old pickups, taxis, and bicycles, and took control of the trucks.

Displaced Iraqis who fled the government’s operation against the Islamic State (IS) group in the city of Fallujah carry basic food items donated by a NGO on June 20, 2016 in a camp in Khaldiyeh. (AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI)

“In a few minutes one squad of looters had seventeen aid boxes,” writes O’Rourke. “The box throwers were dancing and singing in the back of the tractor-trailer.”

The British forces quickly cleared the road, and the aid trucks hurried back to Kuwait, with some of the looters still inside.

Many of the duties soldiers are tasked with in war come with great peril. But handing out humanitarian aid to civilians is not generally seen as one of the more dangerous missions — at least by those who have never been asked to do so.

A deadly incident less than two weeks ago in Gaza underscored the risks for IDF troops trying to ensure that aid gets to civilians.

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

Early on Thursday, February 29, IDF troops were securing a convoy of aid trucks as it entered the northern Gaza Strip. A crowd rushed the vehicles, and at the end of the melee, dozens of civilians were dead. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry — and Israeli allies like France — placed the blame on IDF forces.

The IDF acknowledged that troops opened fire on several Gazans who moved toward soldiers and a tank at an IDF position, endangering soldiers, but said that the bulk of the casualties were trampled by the crowd and were crushed by escaping trucks.

As the distribution of humanitarian aid becomes an issue of strategic importance for Israel in its determination to maintain support for its campaign to destroy Hamas, IDF soldiers will continue to find themselves involved in missions to secure the delivery of aid.

And they will find themselves in tense, volatile and dangerous situations that their training did not prepare them for.

The military and humanitarian aid

Handing out aid comes with inherent risks.

“Distribution of aid may become contentious,” warns the Camp Management Toolkit, a resource guide for those working with displaced communities, “and who receives what may become a problem. Large distributions lasting several days may make certain sectors of the displaced populations fear that they are being excluded.”

Screen capture from video purportedly showing people at the scene were crowds were trampled waiting for humanitarian aid in northern Gaza, February 29, 2024. (X. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The US Army recognizes this reality as well. It includes humanitarian assistance operations in its field manual on civil disturbance operations. The manual says that such missions “demand some sort of graduated-response criteria to maintain order and prevent uncertain environments from becoming hostile.”

In some ways, military forces are uniquely suited to provide aid on the battlefield. No other organization can move comparable numbers of personnel and equipment quickly across long distances, even in extremely challenging terrain conditions. And militaries can secure the transportation and delivery of aid.

But aid organizations warn that soldiers should only be used as a last resort.

Palestinians loot a humanitarian aid truck as it crossed into the Gaza Strip from Egypt, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

“Soldiers are trained to fight wars and aid workers are trained to deliver aid,” warned the British charity Christian Aid in a press release.

“Distributing humanitarian supplies is not as simple as it sounds and, if done incorrectly, can lead to danger both for recipients and for those handing out the food packs,” it continued.

“We have seen soldiers on television in a state of panic trying to hand out relief supplies under great pressure from crowds of people desperate to get much-needed help.”

Some groups, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, reject direct military involvement in humanitarian aid — even armed protection for aid workers — which it sees as compromising the “impartiality, neutrality and independence” of its work.

Illustrative: In this Jan. 27, 2018, file photo, US Army soldiers speak to families in rural Anbar on a reconnaissance patrol near a coalition outpost in western Iraq. (AP Photo/Susannah George, File)

Yet humanitarian aid has become an integral part of military campaigns in recent decades. The US-led efforts to create stable, pro-Western governments in Iraq and Afghanistan included humanitarian aid at the center of the counterinsurgency doctrine. The Pentagon even created the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to coordinate military and aid efforts, and included aid funding within the Iraq War budget.

The lack of clear distinctions between the military and humanitarian efforts alarmed some practitioners. “The boundaries between the occupying force and the UN and the humanitarian community in Iraq is the most blurred it’s ever been, anywhere we’ve worked,” said Oxfam spokesman Brendan Cox.

In Gaza too, the humanitarian mission is not independent of Israel’s war effort. International support for the continuation of the campaign against Hamas hinges on Israel’s ability to ensure that food and medicine enter the Strip and reach civilians in need.


For a soldier, humanitarian aid missions are a “nightmare,” said John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute in the prestigious US military academy West Point.

Palestinians at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 21, 2024. (Fatima Shbair/AP)

“In a split second,” he told The Times of Israel, “chaos can ensue and you don’t have the normal tools to try to control both the threat to your life, but also the chaos around you.”

He said that the deadly melee around the aid convoy in northern Gaza “brought back a lot of scar tissue,” the memories of his own fraught aid missions in Iraq.

“You have thousands and thousands of people who won’t listen to orders, which are an attempt to help keep control — form a line, don’t approach the security personnel,” said Spencer.

“In the snap of a finger, it can turn into complete chaos, where everybody is threatened,” he repeated.

An IDF soldier with medical supplies at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City in a handout photo distributed on November 15, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

There are ways to reduce the chances of the situation spinning out of control — including by delivering at night when fewer people are around, and controlling the delivery points.

But groups like Hamas know that they can use a crowd of desperate civilians to create disorder from which they can target troops, prevent them from asserting control over the distribution of aid, and keep themselves from being sidelined.

During the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, Israel set up a hospital for Palestinian civilians at the Erez Crossing, complete with an emergency medicine department, an inpatient department, and facilities to provide advanced treatments like orthopedics, ophthalmology, and OB-GYN care.

Hamas issued threats against anyone who would be treated at the hospital, and in the end, only a few dozen arrived.

Illustrative photo of IDF soldiers in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

In the ongoing war in Gaza, the terrorist organization has conducted “humanitarian ambushes,” firing at IDF troops from crowds receiving aid, IDF commanders told The Times of Israel.

Soldiers always have the right of self-defense,” Spencer explained, adding that he “can’t imagine” the challenge of securing aid convoys into the northern Gaza Strip.

“It was the fourth night in a row,” he said of the deadly swarm in February in Gaza Strip, “which creates a pattern which somebody could then use to take to their advantage.”

File: Then-senator Joe Lieberman, right, talking to Gen. David Petraeus at the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters in Afghanistan during a congressional delegation tour, Nov. 10, 2010. (Joshua Treadwell)

Former CIA director David Petraeus, who also led the 2008 surge of US troops in Iraq that changed the tide of the war, was more optimistic about the potential to find ways to distribute aid effectively.

“We had to figure out how you do these operations,” he told The Times of Israel. “But it can be done. And I think the challenge is that, unfortunately, right now, it’s you and your soldiers who will have to figure out how to do this.”

Israeli soldiers stand by an Egyptian truck bringing in humanitarian aid supplies into the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, February 6, 2024. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

In the meantime, Israel’s official line is that the aid organizations within the Gaza Strip are responsible for arranging security once Israel hands over aid shipments.

‘The international organizations that are delivering the aid also take responsibility for securing their convoys,” a spokesman from the IDF Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories told The Times of Israel. “We’re happy to try and help work with them to find solutions. But it’s important to remember that the distribution is their responsibility.”

Even if Israel officially puts the burden on the UN and other organizations, the aid issue is too important to be left to unreliable actors. Another deadly incident could further undermine American patience, and if the aid distribution doesn’t improve, the pressure to end the campaign could endanger Israel’s ability to win the war.

A photo released by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories showing humanitarian aid inside the Gaza Strip that has not been distributed, Feb. 15, 2024. (X screenshot used in accordance with article 27a of the Copyright Law)

Given what’s at stake, the IDF will continue to be involved in missions to secure aid distribution. On Friday, US President Joe Biden said that Israeli troops will provide security for the temporary port he announced will be built off the coast of Gaza City. It remains unclear who will get the aid from the pier to Gazans, but Israel will presumably have to oversee some of the journey, including keeping hungry crowds away from the operation.

That mission, and other similar attempts to ensure that aid reaches Gazans and is not looted or taken by Hamas, will continue to be fraught, with the potential for bloodshed and chaos.

“I don’t wish that mission on any soldier, period,” said Spencer.

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