IDF says UNICEF convoy escorted by troops shelled by Hamas

UN warns Israel aid operations in Gaza to halt unless safety improved

US defense chief Austin presses Gallant on protecting aid workers during talks; Washington blames looters, gangs for situation UN says is ‘increasingly intolerable’ for staff

Palestinians surround trucks loaded with humanitarian aid brought in through a new US-built pier, in the central Gaza Strip, Saturday, May 18, 2024. (AP/Abdel Kareem Hana)
Palestinians surround trucks loaded with humanitarian aid brought in through a new US-built pier, in the central Gaza Strip, Saturday, May 18, 2024. (AP/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Senior UN officials have warned that they will suspend the world body’s aid operations across Gaza unless Israel acts urgently to better protect humanitarian workers, two UN officials said Tuesday.

The ultimatum is the latest in a series of UN steps demanding Israel do more to safeguard aid operations from strikes by its forces and to curb growing lawlessness hindering humanitarian workers.

A UN letter sent to Israeli officials this month said Israel must provide UN workers with a way to communicate directly with Israeli forces on the ground in Gaza, among other steps, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations with Israeli officials.

The UN officials said there has been no final decision on suspending operations across Gaza and that talks with the Israelis were ongoing.

UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric told reporters in New York that UN humanitarian coordinator Muhannad Hadi had written to the Israel Defense Forces on June 17 and the UN’s undersecretary for security, Gilles Michaud, spoke with Israeli military officials Monday.

Dujarric called conditions for aid workers in the territory “increasingly intolerable.” But he said the UN was “pushing all its contacts” with the Israelis to resolve the problems and noted that “the UN will not turn its back on the people of Gaza.”

In the US, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder indicated that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin raised the issue during a meeting with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who is visiting Washington this week to speak with Biden administration officials.

“Secretary Austin urged Minister Gallant to double down on efforts to protect Palestinian civilians and humanitarian-aid workers in Gaza,” he said in a readout of their talks.

The two “discussed ways to improve the distribution of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians in dire need and to strengthen the deconfliction mechanisms for humanitarian workers.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greets Defense Minister Yoav Gallant as he arrives during an honor cordon at the Pentagon on June 25, 2024 in Arlington, Virginia. (Andrew Harnik/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/Getty Images via AFP)

US officials are talking with the UN and Israeli military to try to help resolve UN concerns, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters earlier Tuesday.

Asked if the US had received any commitments from Gallant, Miller said, “we went through a number of specific things that we want to see resolved when it comes to the humanitarian situation and got an assurance to continue to work on those.”

The IDF declined to comment on the UN warning, and the defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The army claims it is trying to facilitate aid shipments and accuses Hamas of disrupting them, noting Tuesday that the terror group shelled a UNICEF aid convoy being escorted by troops.

Israel has previously acknowledged some military strikes on humanitarian workers, including an April attack that killed seven workers with the World Central Kitchen, and has denied allegations of others.

Citing security concerns, the UN World Food Program has already suspended aid deliveries from a US-built pier designed to bring food and other emergency supplies to Palestinians who are facing hunger amid more than eight months of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

UN and other aid officials have complained for months that they have no way to communicate quickly and directly with Israeli forces on the ground, in contrast with the usual procedures — known as “deconfliction” — employed in conflict zones globally to protect aid workers from attack by combatants.

Relief groups say Israel’s procedure for coordinating aid work requires them to speak instead with an agency within the military.

US Army soldiers stand at the U.S.-built floating pier Trident backdropped by the coast of the Gaza Strip, Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

In its letter to Israeli officials, the UN demanded the IDF make good on commitments to provide aid workers with communications and protective equipment or aid operations in Gaza would halt, the two UN officials said.

Miller said aid deliveries were not being shot at by Israeli troops or Hamas but rather were being hamstrung by “random looting and criminal gangs” attacking trucks.

“And so we have been working with the UN and Israel to try to find a solution to that problem,” including trying to ensure that aid workers “have radios and other communications equipment so they can communicate with each other and safely move around Gaza,” Miller told reporters.

The UN and other humanitarian organizations have urged Israel to do more to improve overall security from attack and theft amid what they say is increasing crime in Gaza.

The lawlessness has stymied what Israel said was a daily pause in fighting to allow aid into southern Gaza, with humanitarian officials saying groups of gunmen are regularly blocking convoys, holding drivers at gunpoint and rifling through their cargo.

Destroyed buildings stand in the coast of the Gaza Strip as seen from the Mediterranean Sea, Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

On top of that, “missiles hit our premises, despite being deconflicted,” said Steve Taravella, a spokesman for the World Food Program, one of the main organizations working on humanitarian delivery in Gaza. He was not one of those confirming the UN threat to suspend operations across the territory. “WFP warehouses have been caught in the crossfire twice in the past two weeks.”

Humanitarian officials said conditions for civilians and aid workers have worsened since early May, when Israel launched an offensive in the southern city of Rafah, where many aid groups had their base. The operation has crippled what had been a main border crossing for food and other aid.

Aid workers trying to get shipments through the main remaining crossing, Kerem Shalom, face risks from fighting, damaged roads, unexploded ordnance and Israeli restrictions, including spending five or more hours a day waiting at checkpoints, Taravella said.

“Restoring order is crucial for an effective humanitarian response to meet soaring needs. UN agencies and others need a safe environment to be able to access people and scale up,” he said.

Israeli officials say the problems at Kerem Shalom are a matter of poor UN logistics.

Despite the challenges, the UN’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification organization said Tuesday that the flow of food into Gaza had increased in recent months, revising earlier claims that the enclave was on the brink of full-blown famine.

UN may resume using pier

Separately, a humanitarian official said the UN has finished a security assessment of the US-built pier but has not yet made a decision on resuming delivery of supplies arriving by sea.

The UN suspended cooperation with the pier operation on June 9, a day after the Israeli military used a nearby beach to evacuate four rescued hostages and a fatally wounded officer during a mission that health officials in the Hamas-run territory  said killed more than 270 Palestinians, without specifying how many were non-combatants.

The humanitarian official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not yet been released publicly.

While US and Israeli officials said no part of the pier itself was used in the raid, UN officials said any perception in Gaza that the project was used in the Israeli military operation may endanger their aid work.

A US Army soldier gestures as trucks loaded with humanitarian aid arrive at the US-built floating pier Trident before reaching the beach on the coast of the Gaza Strip, Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Speaking to reporters traveling with a US delegation to a gathering of defense chiefs in Botswana on Tuesday, an official with the US Agency for International Development expressed optimism that aid deliveries from the pier would eventually resume.

“I think it’s a question of when the IDF can provide, and the government of Israel can provide, the assurances that the UN is seeking on deconfliction and security right now,” said Isobel Coleman, deputy administrator of USAID, which has been working with the World Food Program on aid distribution from the pier.

War broke out following Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw terrorists kill some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnap 251.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,500 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though the toll cannot be verified and does not differentiate between civilians and fighters. Israel says it has killed some 15,000 combatants in battle and some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel during the October 7 attack.

Most Popular
read more: