Israel’s begrudging approach to humanitarian aid could cost it the war in Gaza

Netanyahu was pressured into announcing new measures for Gazans in wake of deadly strike on WCK aid workers, but again Jerusalem risks doing too little, too late

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Palestinian man ferries water at a makeshift camp for displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 4, 2024 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
A Palestinian man ferries water at a makeshift camp for displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 4, 2024 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

There are many aspects of Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza that have frustrated its closest allies. Ill-considered statements by ministers and other elected officials, a refusal to talk about the “day after” Hamas, and, especially, the civilian death toll have strained the unqualified support Israel enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 massacre by Hamas in southern Israel.

But it is the Netanyahu government’s approach to the complex and often desperate humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip that is truly endangering support for the continuation of the war, and is placing the “total victory” he promised in doubt.

For months, allies have been both quietly and publicly trying to get Israel’s war leadership to recognize how fundamental the aid situation is to the war effort.

Israel’s response has been to instinctively deny each request, then ultimately agree to those same demands when circumstances on the ground leave little choice. That approach, which seems built around domestic political calculations, is causing Israel to bleed support even as victory doesn’t seem especially imminent.

Tough talk

“I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed,” declared Defense Secretary Yoav Gallant two days after the October 7 massacre.

Less than two weeks later, the siege was lifted, as the first aid trucks bearing food and medicine were crossing in from Egypt.

By mid-November, pressure from the US and NGOs pushed Israel to reverse course on fuel as well, as trucks started bringing fuel tanks for hospitals, aid trucks, water pumps, desalination plants, bakeries and sewage plants.

Fuel would also go to the Paltel telecoms company so that Gazans could enjoy phone and internet service.

Now, COGAT boasts about how many fuel tankers it lets in every day.

File: A United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) fuel truck arrives at the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on November 22, 2023. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

Under the stated policy of disconnecting Israel from Gaza — trumpeted by Israeli leaders from the very start of the war — decision-makers also promised that no aid would go into the Strip from the Kerem Shalom crossing. The Biden administration and the broader international community pressured Israel for weeks to open Kerem Shalom, previously Gaza’s main goods crossing.

In December, Netanyahu and the government relented, and now it advertises how many trucks go through the crossing every day.

Israeli police prevent activists from blocking trucks carrying humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza, in southern Israel, January 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Israel wouldn’t let the Ashdod Port be used for the transfer of aid either. Finally, in January, Netanyahu gave in to American pressure and allowed a massive flour shipment to reach the docks. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich blocked the release of the flour for weeks to keep it from getting to UNRWA, predictably angering the Americans, before it was finally allowed into Gaza.

Now, in the wake of Monday’s deadly strike on the World Central Kitchen convoy, Israel continues to walk back its tough talk.

Ashdod Port will be open for aid from Sunday. Israel is also opening the Erez crossing into northern Gaza, the main crossing point into the Strip where many Israelis were killed and abducted by invading Hamas terrorists on October 7, after defying calls to do so for months.

It is also keeping the Kerem Shalom crossing open for longer hours and over the weekend. COGAT had dismissed the need for such a measure, saying that it processes more trucks every day than organizations in Gaza are able to handle. Now Israel is claiming that keeping the crossing open for longer will enable more aid to reach Gazans.

Instead of showing its allies that it is leading the aid effort, Israel is seen as dragging its feet as the humanitarian situation in the Strip gets worse.

That perception — not at all unfounded — is putting the entire campaign in danger.

US President Joe Biden is no longer definitively conditioning a ceasefire on the release of hostages. He told Netanyahu in their tense phone call after the WCK strike that “an immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilize and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians.”

A ceasefire imposed from the outside without any major concessions from Hamas would, of course, be a disaster for Israel, especially as it tries to figure out how to pull off the last stage of conquering Gaza.

The southern city of Rafah, insist Israel’s leaders across the political spectrum as well as its military chiefs, must be taken. Four Hamas battalions, plus the fighters that have fled south, remain in the city. The Philadelphi road, the route along the border between Gaza and Israel, under and over which Hamas arms flowed into Gaza since 2007, also needs to be in Israeli hands.

Palestinian children sit on a hill next to tents housing the displaced in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

But humanitarian concerns, with more than a million displaced Palestinians sheltering in the city, are holding up that offensive as well, and it looks increasingly like the IDF won’t be able to carry out the operation it wants to.

Given the potential for a further deterioration of the situation for Gazans sheltering around Rafah, the Biden administration now opposes any major operation there, and won’t rule out consequences for Israel if it chooses to move ahead.  Israeli government sources tell The Times of Israel that there is a growing sense that the leadership is not actually going to carry out a meaningful operation there, despite its repeated promises.

Netanyahu’s aides presented a humanitarian plan to evacuate Rafah ahead of the military operation to their American counterparts this week, but the Americans were underwhelmed by what they saw, reportedly dismissing the plan as unimplementable.

“It’s because of the humanitarian issue that we are isolated from the world,” said Einav Levy, Founding Director of The Israeli School of Humanitarian Aid. “We already lost image-wise.”


Even though Hamas is intentionally getting in the way of aid distribution and sees benefits in impending starvation in the Strip, Israel has to accept responsibility for the provision of aid there, argued Bar Rapaport of Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

United Nations staff members gather around the car of the US-based aid group World Central Kitchen that was hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024 (Photo by AFP)

“This should have happened so long ago,” she told The Times of Israel, referring to the imperative for Israel to ensure sufficient humanitarian aid.

Levy said that there is currently chaos when it comes to aid in Gaza. “There is no real ability to know who is doing what and where they are doing it,” he said.

There is a shifting panoply of international NGOs, UN agencies and state-sponsored initiatives, operating alongside Hamas, local clans and the IDF. Territorial control changes all the time and civilians move as well.

Illustrative. Palestinian children receive cooked food rations as part of a volunteer youth initiative in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 5, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Rapoport, who is in regular contact with aid agencies in Gaza, including the WCK, said they complain that working with the IDF isn’t an especially organized process: “It depends if you fall on someone in the IDF who is ready to listen, who knows you personally or not.”

The NGOs, she noted, also complained that they weren’t always sure exactly who to turn to.

The WCK declined to comment, saying it was not giving interviews at this time. COGAT did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“There isn’t an orderly, coordinated mechanism for the crossings, for the distribution of aid, for the contacts between Israel and international actors,” lamented Rapoport. “Everyone does what he thinks is right.”

As long as there is chaos on the ground, Israel will struggle to achieve its long-term goals in Gaza.

Israel has ruled out UNRWA operating in Gaza moving forward, and obviously won’t let Hamas be involved in managing the Strip. Israel itself is not interested in reassuming responsibility for 2 million hostile Palestinians.

People gather around the carcass of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen, that was hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024. (AFP)

For now, Netanyahu is hoping that aid organizations will succeed in replacing UNRWA and Hamas’s civil functions, but killing workers from one of Israel’s most effective partners makes that aim even harder to achieve. The WCK has pulled out of Gaza, and it is unclear if it will return.

Netanyahu is hoping that pro-Western Arab states will eventually fund the reconstruction of Gaza, but they are not about to step into the violent bedlam there.

“The minute it is managed more effectively in Israel,” said Rapoport, “it will be easier for Israel to bring on board regional actors to help.


In a macabre twist, the seven aid workers who lost their lives in the IDF strike might have done more in their deaths to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza than they could have dreamed of doing in their daily work.

Israel’s war leadership understood it had no more room for error. If Israel is seen as getting in the way, the US could well use its veto less at the UN and hold up weapons shipments.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a security cabinet meeting, April 4, 2024. (Channel 12 screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

But Netanyahu and his circle still don’t seem to have fully internalized the gravity of the situation. The measures they announced this week are still reactive and seem limited by a fear of upsetting the far-right flank of the government.

The statement announcing the new aid measures included a justification aimed at National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and their supporters, explaining the measure by pointing out that they are crucial for the continuation of the war. The very decision on the aid was rushed through before Ben Gvir arrived at Thursday night’s cabinet meeting, the far-right minister claims.

Many Israelis point out that the hostages Hamas has been holding for six months don’t enjoy aid shipments. They also argue that the very same countries holding Israel’s feet to the fire have fought wars with far less regard for the suffering of enemy civilians.

That might be true, but Israel’s leaders have to operate within the expectations and standards its allies hold them to, even if they might seem unreasonable.

Netanyahu can show initiative on the humanitarian front, and regain some legitimacy to finish the job against Hamas. That would include opening all crossings, appointing a humanitarian aid czar, conducting regular meetings with aid organizations, laying water pipes into Gaza ahead of the summer, and even establishing Israeli field hospitals on the border.

There is no reason to wait until the US demands more measures and then be seen as callous toward the suffering of civilians.

“If Israel had shown from the beginning that the humanitarian issue is important to it,” said Rapoport, “that it is doing everything to make sure as few innocents as possible are being harmed, to publicize it, to show how much it is bringing in, we would be in a very different position now.”

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