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

Reconnaissance missions include 6 people tasked with assessing damage in northern part of Strip and delivering aid to approximately 400,000 Palestinians who remain in the area

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

A view of the rubble of buildings hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip, on Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)
A view of the rubble of buildings hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip, on Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)

A senior UN official told The Times of Israel this week 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, Andrea De Domenico, who heads OCHA’s office in the Palestinian territories, said on Tuesday.

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, being interviewed by The Times of Israel on February 6, 2023. (Screen capture/Zoom)

De Domenico said that even 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 the mission 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 are not 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 agencies say.

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.

Asked whether he trusts Israel’s prognosis, De Domenico indicated that he does not completely.

“Trust in people who have systematically shot at us is a bit complicated,” he said, 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.

Men sweep water away from the entrance of a school run by UNRWA that is sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

“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 said.

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 said in an interview days after UNRWA sacked several employees over their participation in the October 7 terror onslaught that saw Hamas terrorists infiltrate Israel, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping approximately 250.

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

Last month, De Domenico accused Israel of “systematic refusal” to allow the agency access to northern Gaza.

And last week, the US said the assessment mission had been delayed due to renewed fighting in the area, with State Department spokesman Matt Miller saying that “we saw Hamas fighters pop up and start launching rocket attacks into Israel, start shooting at Israeli forces. That made the conditions on the ground not tenable or safe for conducting this humanitarian mission.”

Since ordering civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate southward at the war’s outset, the IDF has severely limited the amount of humanitarian aid to the region, citing fears that those who remain are potential Hamas fighters seeking to hijack assistance. But UN agencies say hundreds of thousands of civilians still remain in northern Gaza in dire need of assistance.

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