This study delves into the multifaceted realm of humanitarian aid to Gaza, scrutinizing how aid to Gaza has been politicized, in comparison to aid received by Israel and other forms of foreign assistance, such as military aid. This paper highlights the discrepancies in humanitarian aid to Gaza and the political undertones that shape them and recommends a reformation of aid paradigms, advocating for a humanitarian ethos that transcends political objectives and truly addresses the urgent needs of affected populations. It argues that as the war on Gaza continues, aid should also be designed to be easily integrated into any future social protection system in the post-conflict setting and cover all Gazans, considering the scope and magnitude of the social and economic damages caused since October 2023.
On 7 October 2023, Hamas initiated a military operation in Israel around the Gaza enclave. Israel responded with military action and sealed off the Gaza Strip, cutting off water, electricity, fuel, food, and other basic necessities, creating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the Strip. This crisis is the first of its kind where Israel has prevented access to such basic needs while also conducting a military operation with hundreds of air, sea, and land attacks, resulting in over 11,000 deaths and more than 20,000 injuries within five weeks. Additionally, the displacement of over one million Palestinians from Gaza City and the northern areas to the south of Gaza has exacerbated the humanitarian situation, with food, water, and medicine becoming increasingly scarce. In response to the escalating crisis, the United Nations and its agencies have warned of catastrophic consequences due to the siege and called for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of the Rafah Crossing with Egypt to allow the entry of basic necessities and fuel. However, Israel has rejected these calls. After 60 days, Israel permitted approximately 3097 trucks into southern Gaza since 7 October, whereas previously, Gaza required 500 trucks daily, even during the partial blockade.
Since 7 October, Israel has prohibited the entrance of humanitarian assistance into the Gaza Strip, and only allowed in dozens of trucks daily in coordination with the United Nations. By the 35th day of the attacks, only 861 trucks were allowed to enter the Gaza Strip, a fraction compared to the needed 500 trucks daily. In terms of food security, the market's stock of wheat was expected to last 12 days, while stocks of vegetable oil, rice, and sugar have been depleted. The only operational mill in the Gaza Strip is not functioning due to the electricity outage. According to the UN, a person living in the southern Gaza Strip must wait four to six hours to receive half of a normal bread portion. In Gaza City and northern Gaza, there are no operating bakeries. In terms of fruits and vegetables, there are no fruits, and only scarce, home-harvested vegetables are available. Water consumption has decreased by 90% now, compared to the period before 7 October.
Western aid to Israel has been provided in various forms, including economic and military support. In the initial days of the conflict, the USA deployed warships to the Mediterranean Sea. At Israel's request, the USA supplied ammunition and guided missiles. In the third week of October, the White House approved a $2 billion military aid package for Israel. On 20 October, President Biden requested Congress to authorize a $14 billion military aid package. Furthermore, the USA furnished Israel with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of missiles, bombs, and ammunition. On the other hand, Germany declared its support by offering military assistance and approved a €303 million military export to Israel.
In light of the dire circumstances and the deteriorating conditions threatening the well-being of Gaza's population, it is crucial to reevaluate the delivery and functionality of international humanitarian aid. This article posits that humanitarian efforts must be universally applied and strategically planned to ensure that interventions are substantial (rather than superficial), effective and integrated. A foundational phase of such humanitarian assistance in this conflict setting can establish a universal social protection scheme that could persist beyond the conflict. Further, the paper contends that the politicization of aid not only exacerbates civilian suffering but also manipulates aid as a tool for creating more profound and lasting damage – both humanitarian and socio-economic. It is imperative to recognize that humanitarian aid must be deployed impartially and effectively to prevent exacerbation of the already critical situation.
The Siege on Gaza and its Consequences
Before the current Israeli military assault, Gaza had been under complete siege since 2006 and under partial siege since the early 1990s. The Gaza Strip has endured a unique form of occupation, as the Israeli military was not physically present on the ground in Gaza to control and impose its policies, as it had been from 1967 until 1993. In 2005, Israel removed its checkpoints and settlements from inside the Gaza Strip but maintained control over the borders. Although the Palestinian Authority controlled service delivery, such as social protection, through the Ministry of Social Affairs, the lives of all Gazans were permanently circumscribed by the Israeli occupation from afar. The siege on Gaza aims not only to besiege Hamas but also to isolate and disintegrate the Gazan population from the global economy, including by restricting its movement and social mobility. Therefore, the siege on Gaza must be understood as a distinct form of extreme repression and control over society, economy, politics, and services. Gazans have already been deprived of basic needs for survival, whereas social protection and assistance are urgently needed to keep the population on the margin of life.
This long siege on Gaza has had profound and multifaceted consequences. It led to economic deterioration, especially due to a decline in trade activity and restriction of movement, leading to high unemployment levels and loss of livelihood opportunities. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2022, the unemployment rate in Gaza was 46,6%, while it was much higher among youth. The siege has also affected food security and led to malnutrition. Restrictions on imports created food shortages and increased prices, making it difficult for many residents to access adequate nutrition. This situation resulted in higher rates of malnutrition, particularly among children. In 2008, the Israeli military, in collaboration with various Israeli institutes, calculated the daily caloric needs of the Gaza population and allowed only the minimum necessary for survival.
The siege also impacted the healthcare system, especially access to healthcare. Shortages of medical supplies, equipment, and essential drugs, as well as restrictions on movement and damaged infrastructure, made it difficult for Gazans to receive adequate healthcare. In September 2023, the Palestinian Ministry of Health announced that “the central warehouses are completely empty of medical consumables needed for dialysis services, including blood filters, cannulas, and blood tubes.” The siege has also exacerbated water scarcity and sanitation problems. With limited access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities, the population faced increased risks of waterborne diseases. In addition, the repeated attacks on Gaza (2008-2009, 2012, 2014, 2021, 2022) and restrictions on imports of building materials under the siege led to widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure, creating a chronic housing crisis and inadequate public utilities. Moreover, the siege had a particularly detrimental effect on the young population of Gaza, affecting their education, health, and prospects.
Not only does Israel prevent the entry of humanitarian aid and medical supplies, but it also bans the entry of dozens of types of emergency equipment. This ban has severely impaired the capabilities of Palestinian institutions, including local municipalities, to respond effectively to war or natural catastrophes. The recent attacks on Gaza highlight this issue, as thousands remain trapped under rubble with no means available to rescue them.
Over the last few years, many UN organizations and international aid groups have conducted needs assessments in the Gaza Strip, exploring the needs of the population and the various mechanisms for support. These organizations have also tried to predict the consequences of military operations amid escalations on previous occasions, such as in 2012, 2014, and 2008/2009. Thorough needs assessments were coordinated with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the de facto government in the Gaza Strip. However, these assessments did not anticipate the nature of the Israeli war on the scale witnessed in October 2023, where the population was asked to evacuate, and Gaza City was subjected to extensive bombing.
The Harmful Politicization of Aid to Gaza
Humanitarian interventions in the last few decades have emerged as a critical component in addressing crises and conflicts. They often manifest as a dominant aspect of Western countries' global engagement, serving to demonstrate solidarity, exert soft power, or pursue political objectives. In the context of conflicts and wars, humanitarian corridors, assistance, and - to some extent - interventions are almost ubiquitous. Numerous international NGOs, alongside UN agencies, have established themselves as entities providing humanitarian assistance under a global mandate, characterized by humanitarian visions, missions, and aims to protect civilians in difficult times. These organizations have either a mandate by governments or operate as faith-based or solidarity organizations. Some governments delegate these tasks to para-governmental agencies, such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, thereby infusing politics with moral considerations. This approach also serves as a strategy to avoid engagement with organizations and governments that are not aligned with Western interests.
For instance, Hamas, as the de-facto administration in Gaza, faced boycotts from Western countries. Consequently, para-governmental organizations have stepped in to provide services, execute interventions, and offer humanitarian aid. In this context, a clear distinction between politics and humanitarianism is drawn. As the former president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) contends, “Humanitarianism is not a political issue and should remain separate from political maneuvering.”
However, the conflict in Gaza and the ensuing siege illustrate how humanitarianism and politics can either converge or be dominated by political agendas. In this regard, governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental humanitarian organizations, including various UN agencies, cannot implement or provide intervention without the political will of their respective countries/member states or permission from the Israeli government.
Aid to Gaza is often subject to stringent conditions, which can include the stipulation that aid organizations do not work with certain local groups or governments not aligned with Western policies. This conditionality can limit the effectiveness of humanitarian efforts, as it may restrict aid from reaching certain populations or areas. The claim that these conditions are intended to ensure aid is not diverted from its humanitarian purpose is usually to target Hamas-suspected groups or organizations. Palestinians have received about $37.2 billion in development aid (in constant dollars) between 1994 and 2017, according to the OECD. This includes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These funds were channeled to the Palestinian Authority and NGOs working in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as part of the peace process, including democratization and human rights projects, or to UN agencies such as UNDP. Given the 13-year timeframe, these funds did not meet the population's needs; rather, they were top-down and conditioned to some extent.
In contrast, aid to Israel from Western countries, especially the USA, is predominantly military. This includes funding for defense systems, military equipment, and technology. The USA has provided Israel with significant military assistance, often in the form of grants that Israel can spend on American military equipment and services. For example, between 1951 and 2022, Israel received $225.2 billion in US military aid, adjusted for inflation, which is approximately 71% of its aid from all sources. Since 2000, over 86% of annual American aid to Israel has funded military efforts. Since 7 October, the USA has approved more than $14 billion as military aid to Israel. At the same time, the USAID President announced an assistance package of $21 million, which will include hygiene and shelter supplies, as well as food for the Palestinians in Gaza. Additionally, on 18 October, Biden announced a humanitarian fund for Gaza of $100 million. The US humanitarian funds to Gaza amount to just 0.86% of the military aid given to Israel in the same period.
The complexity of humanitarian aid to Gaza requires an understanding of both the immediate needs of its affected population and the political landscape that shapes the delivery of this aid. Political agendas can heavily influence where and how aid is provided. In the case of Gaza, the political situation, including the blockade and restrictions imposed by the Israeli government, has a direct impact on the delivery and scope of humanitarian assistance in a way that exerts another, “parallel cold war” on the Strip and its civilians. Besides that, the politicization of aid, only for the Palestinians, is causing harm to the civilian population.
All Gaza, All Gazans: Reforming Aid after the Conflict
As the conflict in Gaza persists, and a famine is possible, the consequences are increasingly dire, with over a million people displaced and thousands of homes destroyed. The devastation of infrastructure has blurred the distinction between native Gazans and refugees, as nearly everyone in the city has been impacted, suffering losses in income, housing, or the death of the family breadwinners. To address this crisis effectively, whether in the presence or absence of a formal Palestinian Administration, UN agencies such as UNRWA, WFP, and UNHCR must implement a strategic, long-term plan. This plan should seamlessly connect rapid humanitarian assistance to a comprehensive and sustainable social protection vision, benefiting all people of Gaza, regardless of their registration status with UNRWA. The current state of humanitarian aid is constrained. The UN, as the sole functional and operational agency, has continued to distribute aid using the same methods and mechanisms as other places, consistent with practices before October 2023. In certain instances, the UN has distributed toys resembling burger meals to children rather than providing actual food, as was the case in Khan Younes, as posted by Muhammed Smiry, who is stationed and sheltered in one of UNRWA schools. Furthermore, since 7 October, Israel has targeted bakeries and the warehouses of international organizations, as well as storage facilities for wheat, flour, and cooking oil.
The situation in Gaza necessitates a strategic plan that extends beyond conventional approaches, as the provision of humanitarian aid must aim not only to alleviate malnutrition and ensure healthcare but also to create both short and long-term livelihood opportunities for the Gazan people. The political stalemate and Israel's indeterminate intentions towards Gaza add layers of complexity, rendering traditional methods of relief insufficient. Unlike standard humanitarian practices, which prioritize efficiency in the distribution of aid and resources, Gaza's scenario, marked by scarce resources and extensive needs, calls for a shift towards universal and adequate coverage for all residents. This is imperative, especially considering the impact of previous conflicts and the long-standing reliance on aid and social protections that have historically been focused on efficiency rather than effectiveness and universality.
The UN, as the only organization that has a mandate, should create a network or coordination consortium involving various International NGOs, the Palestinian Authority, and local functional NGOs and groups. This coordination is crucial given the extensive destruction of health and educational facilities and social infrastructure. Humanitarian aid should be distributed equitably across all areas of Gaza. Emphasizing local ownership of operations is vital for minimizing long-term harm. This approach includes fostering and channeling funds to support local grassroots initiatives, which can provide spaces for both formal and informal philanthropic and social activities, as well as establishing locally owned and operated social development centers and health facilities to serve those in need.
Moreover, it is essential to recognize the psychological impact the conflict has on the population, particularly children and young adults. Mental health and psychosocial support services should be integrated into the aid framework to address trauma and promote resilience, building on success stories and lessons learned from previous conflicts in the region. Additionally, efforts to rebuild physical infrastructure must prioritize sustainable and resilient designs, considering the likelihood of future conflicts. Engaging the local population in reconstruction efforts not only provides employment opportunities but also ensures that the rebuilding process is in line with the community's needs and cultural values. This engagement, however, should not take the form of active labor market programs such as cash for work, but as a systematized and nationwide ‘reform, rebuild, rehabilitate, and reconstruction plan’, which is more likely able to provide job opportunities to Gazans.
Beyond immediate aid, there should be a concerted effort to facilitate dialogue and seek a long-term resolution to the conflict, recognizing that true recovery in Gaza cannot occur without a peaceful and stable environment. This holistic approach, combining immediate humanitarian assistance with long-term development and peacebuilding strategies, is essential for the lasting recovery and prosperity of Gaza and its people. Yet, for such a vision to be successful, it requires the political will and support of the international community, the enforcement of international law and human rights frameworks, and serious efforts on the part of local authorities.
The main argument is that a humanitarian strategy that is, at best, perfunctory, and at worst, complicit in a broader political scheme that undermines the rights and dignities of the Palestinians in Gaza will not meet the needs of the Palestinians and will be rather transformed into a politicized weapon.
There is a need for a strategic paradigm shift in humanitarian aid during crises and post-conflict situations, even if the case of Gaza is unique in several ways, starting from the prolonged siege before the full outbreak of the war, the pre-existing humanitarian crisis, the political deadlock, and the ineffectiveness and dysfunction of international organizations in the Strip. Additionally, it is of utmost importance to tackle the inability to prevent the destruction of much-needed infrastructure for the functioning delivery mechanisms of humanitarian aid and to ensure proper social protection for children and women.
The current humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip is multifaceted. Firstly, there is an increase in the number of internally displaced people who were not registered with UNRWA. In addition, the destruction of educational and health facilities, along with the lack of basic necessities such as food and water, exacerbate the situation. Although widespread and sufficient humanitarian assistance is partially unavailable at this stage, and there is no certainty as to when such aid will be accessible to the entire population of Gaza, it is crucial to rethink the model of humanitarian assistance and link it to a social protection mechanism. This should be done in coordination with UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority, which had partially operational infrastructure before 7 October.
This approach implies that the whole population of Gaza should be linked to a social protection scheme through an urgent humanitarian assistance mechanism that is sustainable. This mechanism should provide not only basic needs like food and water, but also shelter, health, education, and long-term psychological support. Any humanitarian assistance program deviating from this vision could lead to a worsening long-term situation for the people of Gaza and to further loss in the human capital of the Strip. Moreover, it is necessary to coordinate all humanitarian assistance activities and programs of the UN and INGOs to avoid duplications and share responsibilities with a strategic vision.
Linking humanitarian assistance to a social protection vision in the Gaza Strip should be a political strategy, essential to alleviate the sufferings of the Palestinians, especially amid the continuation of the Israeli occupation and the deadlock of a political solution. This is particularly the case since the prognosis for establishing a comprehensive and universal social protection system in Gaza is very bleak, given the past and current circumstances. The aftermath of the Israeli war on Gaza remains unknown, as do its consequences.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.