Gaza is in the midst of one of the largest and fastest growing humanitarian crises in the 75-year history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On October 7, Hamas launched a series of horrific attacks into Israel resulting in the murder of 1,200 Israelis and other nationalities and the taking of an estimated 239 hostages. The retaliatory attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza have caused a cascade of humanitarian suffering and inflicted a breathtaking number of Palestinian civilian casualties. As of November 17, the IDF’s military operations have so far killed over 11,000 people in Gaza, including more than 3,000 women, 4,500 children, and 100 UN staff. Another 27,500 have been injured. Hamas has meanwhile continued to launch indiscriminate rocket attacks toward civilian areas within Israel and continues to hold the hostages. An estimated 1.6 million Palestinians have been newly displaced, including 600,000 now sheltering in UN-run shelters with nowhere else to go. The fighting has been characterized by a flagrant disregard for laws of war by all sides. A conflict in which parties routinely flout international humanitarian law (IHL) with impunity cannot be allowed to continue. Refugees International reiterates its call for a humanitarian cease-fire and the unconditional release of all hostages.
Humanitarian action at any meaningful scale is infeasible and unsafe under the current conditions in Gaza. Nor will it be feasible as long as the conduct of the conflict continues to show wanton disregard for civilian protection. This disregard is both the greatest driver of current humanitarian need, and the greatest impediment to a relief effort. Israel’s siege of Gaza and denial of basic services to the territory are creating immense suffering that cannot be offset by any aid operation alone. These tactics violate explicit IHL prohibitions on collective punishment of a civilian population.
Humanitarian groups have widely called for a cease-fire as a prerequisite to meaningful humanitarian action in Gaza. In the meantime, the United Nations and international community must take steps to ensure that cross-border aid through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt—Gaza’s only remaining humanitarian lifeline—is appropriately utilized and scaled.
Alleviating Civilian Suffering in Gaza
Six weeks in, the conduct of the conflict has created catastrophic humanitarian conditions in Gaza. These actions are also preventing humanitarian operators from responding to the rising humanitarian needs. On November 15, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) outlined a 10-point plan for easing civilian suffering, ensuring predictable aid flows into Gaza, and creating corridors for the delivery of aid. The same day, the UN Security Council also adopted a resolution calling for urgent humanitarian pauses and aid corridors in Gaza. These moves, while long delayed, set the demand for alleviating civilian suffering in Gaza. They, however, do not go far enough. To reverse the degradation of the humanitarian environment and improve conditions for civilians in Gaza, all parties to the conflict must adhere to the laws of war. All parties must commit to protecting civilians and humanitarian personnel in combat zones.
Immediately Restore Essential Services to Gaza
The government of Israel has enacted a “complete siege” on Gaza, blocking the entry of vital goods for the survival of the population and cutting off basic services – water, electricity, and fuel – to Palestinian civilians. These actions are creating immense humanitarian need, at a volume that cannot be offset by the current aid operation. These measures are in violation of international humanitarian law, which explicitly outlaws collective punishment of a civilian population. If Israel reversed this policy, it would provide considerable relief to displaced Palestinians, dramatically improve conditions in shelters, improve the quality of medical treatment for injured civilians and the sick, expand access to clean drinking water, and improve sanitary conditions.
Small amounts of emergency fuel entered Gaza on November 18 through the UN to enable the restoration of some basic services. Israeli authorities must not obstruct these deliveries and should fully cooperate with UN actors to expand the timely delivery of fuel. Hamas must also refrain from any effort to obstruct or divert fuel, or any other form of aid intended for Palestinian civilians.
Protect Displaced People and Other Civilians in Combat Areas
Israel’s air and ground operation has rendered the whole of Gaza unsafe for civilians. Following the IDF’s early pronouncement that its “emphasis is on damage and not accuracy,” more than 1.6 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes by the bombardment. Nearly half of those displaced are now sheltering in United Nations facilities. Israeli security forces have directed 1 million Palestinian civilians to leave Gaza City and move southward past Wadi Gaza, where there are few resources to support them. Hundreds of thousands have made that journey, often under fire. Most sought refuge in the already congested Khan Younis and Rafah neighborhoods. Israeli authorities designated these zones as “safe,” but nearly a third of all civilian casualties resulted from Israeli strikes within these very areas.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are trapped in besieged areas in Gaza City. Of those, approximately 220,000 individuals remain in 99 shelters in northern Gaza and Gaza City. Israel briefly opened a humanitarian corridor on November 6 to allow more people to evacuate, but Palestinian residents reported it was unsafe for use after Hamas and Israeli forces exchanged fire at the corridor. Critically ill patients and the medical staff caring for them are also unable to evacuate. Meanwhile, the UN and other aid agencies have not been able to deliver aid in meaningful quantities in the north due to severe access restrictions and risk to personnel.
Israel must respect IHL obligations with regard to the principles of distinction between civilians and combatants and proportionality, both of which would restrain the scale of damage incurred by Israeli strikes on civilian infrastructure. Israel should particularly avoid attacks in south Gaza (south of Wadi Gaza), where the majority of Palestinians are displaced, as well as refrain from bombing near any shelter site hosting displaced Palestinians in northern Gaza. Hamas must also respect the rights of Palestinian civilians and refrain from using civilians and civilian infrastructure for operational purposes, which could directly threaten civilian lives, and also refrain from obstructing the free movement of civilians seeking safety.
Cease Widespread Attacks on Civilian Infrastructure
Israel’s military operations have extensively damaged civilian infrastructure, including housing blocks, water infrastructure, and hospitals. The United Nations reports that almost half of all of Gaza’s housing units have been damaged or destroyed, as well as 285 schools, 135 health facilities, 53 ambulances, and 20 water facilities. Israel’s attack on Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza on October 31 decimated multiple residential buildings and killed tens of civilians, including women and children. Hundreds more sustained injuries.
IHL mandates the principles of distinction and proportionality as bedrock protections to minimize civilian harm. The attack on the refugee camp appears to constitute a grave violation of these principles. This incident is but one in a series of such apparent violations of the laws of war by the IDF. Israeli authorities argue they are targeting Hamas weapons and fighters co-located in target facilities. This, however, is a distinction without a difference for the more than 4,500 children reportedly killed in Israeli strikes to date.
Establish a Deconfliction Mechanism to Protect Humanitarian Personnel
Since October 7, IDF military operations have killed more than 100 UN personnel in Gaza. Almost 50 United Nations facilities have been damaged. So far, no adequate civil-military deconfliction channel is functioning to protect humanitarian operations in Gaza. Humanitarian deconfliction systems, which the IDF has used in past conflicts including the conflict in southern Lebanon in 2006, are designed to ensure the safety of humanitarian personnel and the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the midst of military operations. The lack of effective deconfliction puts humanitarian action in Gaza at grave risk. Even if the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza were to open on a consistent basis, the lack of reliable deconfliction with the IDF jeopardizes the potential for safe and effective aid delivery.
Israel must maintain a real-time deconfliction mechanism for humanitarian efforts in Gaza with support from the United States and UN Headquarters. Israel previously participated in a similar mechanism during the 2006 war in Lebanon, which could serve as a potential model. In 2006, this involved close coordination and colocation between UN humanitarian staff and the IDF units dedicated to strategy and planning and current operations. To ensure coordination, the IDF should allow relevant UN and aid agencies to send representatives to IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv to maintain open lines of communication, as occurred in 2006. This will ensure that real time updates on aid deliveries, convoy movements, and critical infrastructure are shared to safeguard UN personnel and humanitarian assets.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has called for humanitarian pauses as a means of facilitating aid delivery in Gaza. Refugees International believes that only a sustained cease-fire can enable the scale of aid delivery required. However, pauses can play a helpful (albeit inadequate) role until a cease-fire is secured. To have a meaningful humanitarian impact, pauses must be days, not hours, in duration; must occur on a consistent rhythm until a cease-fire is in place; and must be free of manipulation by parties to the conflict. The successful humanitarian pause in Yemen in 2015, for example, was five days long and made a substantial difference in enabling large-scale delivery of food, medicine, fuel, and other commodities to enable life-sustaining services during that conflict. In Gaza, similarly, a pause would need to have sufficient duration to enable sizable humanitarian deliveries throughout the territory, including, in particular, fuel deliveries to sustain critical services and infrastructure.
Scaling the International Humanitarian Response in Egypt
The operational and security environment inside Gaza is amongst the most challenging in the world. Access to Gaza from Egypt also remains unpredictable via the Rafah border crossing. The number of trucks delivering aid to Gaza has increased, but Israeli and Egyptian authorities continue to heavily scrutinize aid deliveries, which is creating a severe bottleneck. More than 1,000 trucks have reached Gaza since October 21, a figure far below the daily pre-conflict delivery rates of 500. All alternate entry points into Gaza remain sealed, except for a one-off airdrop by the Jordanian Armed Forces.
International diplomacy, led by U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield, in coordination with the UN, Egypt, and Israel, is critical to expanding deliveries through the crossing and improving humanitarian access. As this diplomacy is playing out, the UN should take several immediate steps to ramp up operations to ensure it can fully capitalize on any diplomatic breakthrough.
Activate a UN-Wide Scale-Up
The nature and scope of the situation in Gaza dictates that the UN declare a systemwide scale-up to surge staff and resources quickly. These responses provide the fastest path for administrative, financial, and logistical mobilization within the UN, and to ramp up leadership, staffing, and funding. UNICEF has already declared Gaza an internal level three emergency and scaled its capacity at an organizational level. The rest of the UN system should do the same.
Appoint a Regional Humanitarian Coordinator
Given the severity of the conflict, the regional nature of the humanitarian operation, and sensitivity of the political environment, the UN should appoint a seasoned Regional Humanitarian Coordinator (RHC), a strong Deputy RHC, and a robust operational coordination team. The RHC would lead the scale up in Egypt and coordinate across regional stakeholders, including Egypt, the United States, Israel, and Jordan. This model has precedents in the RHC model used in years past for Syria, which coordinated a politically complex regional response operation across multiple UN country operations.
Expand Humanitarian Coordination with Egypt
Egyptian authorities have taken steps to allow some emergency medical evacuees into Egypt for critical care, but do not want a large-scale refugee crisis or humanitarian response in Sinai. This is creating a series of challenges for aid groups. The Egyptian government’s restrictions on international humanitarian groups are hampering the ability to scale up support for a robust cross-border aid pipeline in Egypt. The Egyptian Red Crescent (ERC) oversees all aid efforts from Egypt’s side, limiting predictable access for NGOs and UN agencies. Egyptian authorities closely monitor access to northern Sinai, controlling the aid environment and directing all humanitarian aid solely through the Egyptian Red Crescent. This control has hampered UN agencies from enhancing their operations and establishing a strong presence in Al-Arish, the main hub for aid deliveries to Gaza.
Moreover, aid agencies cannot procure locally and face high import taxes on foreign aid. There are ongoing endeavors to convince Egyptian officials to reduce or exempt these duties for aid intended for Gaza, but tangible outcomes are still pending. Some international NGOs, partnering with local entities, have found ways to navigate these challenges.
The Egyptian government should support the ERC as the primary authority delivering humanitarian aid with UN agencies, to improve coordination and cooperation with UN agencies to scale a robust aid hub in Arish. Egyptian authorities should expand permissions for UN and NGO personnel to set up physical offices and storage facilities in Arish. They should also streamline procedures for UN agencies and INGOs to procure locally. And, where local procurement is not an option, Egypt should exempt aid imported by NGOs and INGOs from tariffs. Moreover, Egyptian authorities should expand access to medical treatment centers set up in Egypt for emergency medical evacuees in critical need.
Implement an Independent Monitoring and Verification Mechanism
The responsibility for inspecting humanitarian shipments to Gaza should be transferred from Israel to an impartial UN mechanism, as the UN has done for Northwest Syria and for Yemen. Allowing a party to the conflict to veto humanitarian shipments sets a damaging precedent that will no doubt be seized upon by Russia, Syria, and others in other contexts. The current model undermines Palestinian civilians’ access to aid by giving Israel – which has imposed a “complete siege” on Gaza – de-facto veto over the entry of critical goods. The UN has a proven track record in Yemen and Syria of its capability to efficiently inspect and verify aid distribution. Such a mechanism may require a UNSC mandate.
If a UNSC mandate for a verification mechanism proves diplomatically impossible to achieve, there is another option. The United States maintains strong mitigation measures for preventing aid diversion and could be a partner in monitoring the entry of aid in coordination with the UN, Egypt, and Israel. This option could include the use of the U.S.-led Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), which is already deployed in Sinai to monitor the implementation of the Egypt-Israel 1973 Treaty of Peace along the Israel-Egypt border. Given the Gaza border falls within their mandated areas of operation, these units could be deployed to work with stakeholders to monitor aid deliveries. U.S. Special Envoy Satterfield, who previously served as the Director General of the MFO, should explore the potential of utilizing the MFO to serve as an independent monitoring and verification mechanism.
The relentless violence in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has shattered millions of lives and must cease. The international community, along with the United Nations, must act swiftly to ensure that humanitarian aid is not only possible but also effective, utilizing the Rafah border crossing to its fullest potential. Only a sustained ceasefire and a commitment to protecting civilians can pave the way for meaningful humanitarian efforts and begin to address the profound needs of those caught in the crossfire.
Featured Image: Palestinians, including children, waiting to get clean water from mobile tanks as the Israeli attacks continue in Rafah, Gaza on November 13, 2023. On October 8, Israel decided to cut off water, electricity, food and other basic services to Gaza. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)