Sat 25 May 2024 7:52 am - Jerusalem Time

Easing civilian suffering should be the easy part of this war

By David Ignatius

In Gaza City last November, I watched thousands of Palestinian civilians slowly march south from their shattered homes toward what Israel promised would be food and shelter in Rafah.

Now, with Rafah a military target, many of those Palestinians are again on the move fleeing conflict — their plight nearly as desperate as before. Israel, prodded by the United States, must fulfill its repeated promises to provide adequate humanitarian assistance — so that the next phase of the war in Gaza doesn’t become an even deeper tragedy.

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Helping civilians ought to be the easy part of this terrible conflict. But more than seven months into the fighting, supplies of food, medicine and other essentials are still woefully inadequate. International aid workers say that Israel and Egypt continue to impede the flow of assistance. The Biden administration rightfully worries about “the day after,” but the immediate humanitarian task is today — in easing the suffering of Palestinian civilians and freeing Israeli hostages.

“This is a man-made crisis, and there could be a man-made solution,” says Bob Kitchen, the vice president for emergencies for the International Rescue Committee, who helps coordinate the group’s Gaza assistance. He told me during an interview on Thursday how he had to pull his 13-person medical team from Rafah on May 7, when it ran out of cash and Israeli airstrikes came too close. Another IRC medical team had been forced to abandon a hospital in central Gaza in January.


The basic problem, according to Kitchen and other aid workers I talked with, is that available supplies still aren’t getting to the people who need them. There are too many time-consuming delays at crossings, inspection points and “deconfliction” posts. Israel allows so little cash into Gaza that the few functioning ATMs in Rafah are overwhelmed, and economic recovery is impossible.

The IRC released a report this week that some Palestinians are surviving on just 3 percent of the internationally recognized minimum standard for daily water intake. Diarrhea and other waterborne and communicable diseases are spreading among families who don’t have clean water, the IRC said. Delivery of hygienic supplies takes up to three months, and as many as 600 people sometimes share a single latrine, the report said. The IRC, based in New York, is widely respected for its global relief work.

The flow of supplies is better now than a few months ago, at least on paper. The Erez crossing at the northern edge of Gaza is open, along with another just to the west at Zikim, and supplies can flow to these transit points from the Israeli port of Ashdod. The floating pier and causeway constructed by the United States on the central Gaza coast is operating. And the Kerem Shalom crossing at the southeastern edge of Gaza is open, including to commercial trucks coming from the West Bank — though shipments last week into Kerem Shalom were disrupted by right-wing Israeli protesters.


The problem has been Rafah. The big crossing there, which was clearing hundreds of trucks a day a month ago, has been now closed by Egypt because it opposes Israeli military moves to seize control of the Gaza side. Many hundreds of trucks are backed up while Israel and Egypt squabble about border control. But Egypt’s president agreed to open the crossing late Friday on a provisional basis after a phone call from President Biden, so that should ease the pressure.

The most frightening worry is the flight of perhaps 1 million Palestinians, escaping Rafah but without any secure or well-sheltered place to go. Though Israel appears to have acceded to Biden administration pressure against a massive assault on Rafah, panicked Palestinians civilians have left the town anyway. And Israel seems determined to mount a smaller operation.

They’re on the same road of desperation and despair that I saw six months ago. Some head for the already densely packed camps in Muwasi, along the shore; others flee north toward Khan Younis, where U.S. officials estimate that more than half the buildings have been destroyed. “It’s a very, very difficult situation,” says one senior administration official, describing the refugee camp at Muwasi as a “complete mess.”

Whatever you think about the war in Gaza, helping these civilians is essential. “Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority,” Biden said during his State of the Union address in March. On April 2, after Israeli airstrikes killed seven World Central Kitchen workers, the president said he was “outraged and heartbroken,” and that “Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.” That’s still true.

The International Criminal Court’s request this week for arrest warrants for Israeli leaders was atrocious, implying a moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas. But in their understandable indignation, Israeli officials should still heed ICC prosecutor Karim Khan’s admonition that “nothing can justify willfully depriving human beings, including so many women and children, the basic necessities required for life.”

Israel’s friends don’t challenge its obligation to defend itself from the horrors of Hamas. Even the ICC prosecutor said Israel had “a right to take action to defend its population” and didn’t question its military actions. But protecting civilians whenever possible is an obligation in war — especially now when so many frightened and helpless people are on the roads outside Rafah.



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