ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Top humanitarian official says UN’s northern Gaza assessment mission in early stages

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Israeli troops in a Humvee drive in northern Gaza's Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Israeli troops in a Humvee drive in northern Gaza's Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

A senior UN official tells The Times of Israel that his office has begun the earlier stages of an assessment mission in northern Gaza aimed at determining the conditions necessary to allow Palestinians to return to those areas.

In recent days, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has carried out three “reconnaissance” or “recce” missions in Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya, while the UN waits for approval from the IDF to carry out a final reconnaissance mission in Gaza City, says Andrea De Domenico, who heads OCHA’s office in the Palestinian territories.

These “recce” missions include only half a dozen people tasked with carrying out an initial assessment of the conditions on the ground before much larger rapid assessment missions of 20 to 30 people can be dispatched, with representatives from various sectors.

Before the rapid assessments can move forward, the UN staffers typically return to the area in order to distribute aid to the residents.

There are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Palestinians still living in northern Gaza, which the IDF ordered be evacuated at the beginning of the war.

Once some aid is distributed to these residents, the UN can move forward with the rapid assessment missions.

Andrea De Domenico, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Palestinian territories is interviewed by The Times of Israel on February 6, 2023. (Screen capture/Zoom)

De Domenico says that if multiple rapid assessment teams are sent out to different locations at the same time, they would still likely need more than a day to complete the mission.

Once it has been executed, the UN can then move forward with providing its response in the form of food, water, health services and shelter to the remaining residents in northern Gaza.

Such assessments aren’t needed in southern Gaza because humanitarian agencies still have access to those areas and have a better understanding of what is needed, even if the aid coming in has been insufficient.

The overall UN assessment mission has been delayed for weeks, with Israel saying the resurgence of Hamas fighters in northern Gaza has made it unsafe for humanitarian workers to access those areas.

IDF soldiers operate in northern Gaza’s Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Asked whether he trusts Israel’s prognosis, De Domenico indicates that he doesn’t completely.

“Trust in people who have systematically shot at us is a bit complicated,” he says, citing what he claims were over 300 times in which Israeli forces opened fire on humanitarian workers in roughly 150 locations throughout Gaza since the start of the war.

“There are times when they are absolutely right that it’s not safe because we are also in the area, and see what’s happening. But there are other times when I’m not sure what their reasoning is for not letting us in because it’s not about safety. They use other excuses,” De Domenico says.

The OCHA office chief acknowledges that the lack of trust goes both ways. “They see us as with all the biases they think we have,” De Domenico says in an interview days after UNRWA sacked several employees over their participation in the October 7 terror onslaught.

Regardless, he says OCHA will continue engaging with Israel because the sides need each other in order to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

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