Growing Fear for Gaza’s Future: Aid Getting Through ‘A Drop in an Ocean of Need’

Hopes for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas conflict give way to dread amid humanitarian crisis.

Palestinians are receiving bags of flour for humanitarian aid distribution in Bureij camp in the central Gaza Strip on November 30, 2023. Trucks carrying aid, which includes fuel, food, and medicine, are moving into Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt since Nov. 24.
Palestinians are receiving bags of flour for humanitarian aid distribution in Bureij camp in the central Gaza Strip on November 30, 2023. Trucks carrying aid, which includes fuel, food, and medicine, are moving into Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt since Nov. 24. (photo: Majdi Fathi / AP)

WASHINGTON — When Israel and Hamas agreed to a brief pause in their ground war in Gaza, international aid groups hoped it would give them precious time to replenish supplies of desperately needed food, water, medicines and fuel for displaced Palestinians.

But while the Nov. 24-Dec. 1 cease-fire allowed hundreds of trucks transporting emergency supplies to finally enter Gaza after long delays at its border crossing with Egypt, the weeklong cessation of hostilities did not provide enough time for aid groups to stave off a burgeoning humanitarian crisis in the war-torn enclave. 

“The hundreds of trucks that came in during the pause did not create a significant buffer that will allow people to go on for another seven weeks,” Bill O’Keefe, vice president of mission and mobilization of Catholic Relief Services, told the Register. “For the thousands of displaced people who benefited, it was a huge help. But the time was not nearly long enough to allow for the kind of systematic organized humanitarian-assistance program that the scale of this situation demands.”

Before the cease-fire, he noted, Gazans were already suffering from a seven-week delay in the replenishment of emergency supplies. “So while we are proud of what we have accomplished during this ‘pause,’” said O’Keefe, “it is a drop in an ocean of need.”

His remarks reflect the growing frustration and anxiety among emergency aid workers and local groups seeking to contain the devastating fallout of a ground war conducted in Gaza’s tightly packed neighborhoods, where, according to Israeli authorities, Hamas’ military leaders and fighters are embedded in underground tunnels; Hamas has denied these claims. Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ordered the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, forcing them to flee their homes and cutting them off from a ready supply of food, water and medicine.

Joseph Hazboun, regional director of the Pontifical Catholic Near East Welfare Association, echoed O’Keefe’s sober assessment in an email exchange with the Register. “The seven-day cease-fire permitted around 750 humanitarian aid trucks into Gaza, but international aid organizations announced that 1,000 trucks are needed on a daily basis to supply all the needs required,” said Hazboun. He expressed alarm that the delivery of vital humanitarian support to displaced Palestinians was halted or restricted after the cease-fire broke down; and then it was further affected by the protracted negotiations over the return of all of the more than 240 hostages abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7, during its surprise attack on Israel, which also killed 1,200 people and included unspeakable atrocities perpetrated on victims by Hamas. 


Deepening Misery

The cease-fire concluded on Dec. 1 with each side blaming the other for the resumption of a conflict that has resulted in an estimated 15,000 Palestinian deaths, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States as well as the European Union. 

As of Dec. 6, Hamas has released 110 hostages, including 81 Israelis or dual nationals, mostly women and children. In exchange for the return of the hostages, Israel released an even larger number of Palestinian prisoners. 

In late November, aid officials hoped that the hostage-prisoner-exchange effort would continue, paving the way for both an extension of the fragile cease-fire that began on Nov. 27 and an increase in humanitarian convoys.

But the talks broke down, in part because Hamas said it couldn’t locate the remaining hostages, who were likely under the control of other allied militant groups, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is also designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. 

Meanwhile, the recent expansion of the ground offensive to southern Gaza has only deepened the misery of displaced Palestinians, who were ordered to evacuate the northern part of the strip when Israel prepared to launch its initial ground invasion and now find themselves hemmed in as the conflict expands into an area once viewed as a safe haven for civilians. At present, an estimated 70% of the Gaza Strip’s 2.2 million population has fled to the south, burdening already-overcrowded shelters and raising fears that unsanitary conditions could result in an outbreak of disease.

And those on the ground who have watched the dire situation unfold are grieving the loss of innocent life, the senseless suffering of the survivors, and the overnight destruction of local infrastructure built over decades of painstaking development in the enclave. 

The United Nations Development Program reported that the ground war had already destroyed infrastructure and other property valued at about $50 billion, “equivalent to roughly two decades of development support to Gaza.”

“People have lost everything and they need everything,” the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. relief agency that supports Palestinian refugees in the Near East, said in a post on X (formerly Twitter).


Tanks Move In

By Dec. 6, Israeli tanks had entered the center of Khan Younis, the largest city in southern Gaza and the reputed command center of top Hamas leader Yehiya Sinwar. IDF officials had already warned Palestinians sheltering there to move farther south, where sprawling tent cities are already overcrowded.

The IDF further confirmed that it had destroyed at least 60% of the estimated 800 tunnel shafts built by Hamas.

“The tunnel shafts were located in civilian areas, many of which were near or inside civilian buildings and structures, such as schools, kindergartens, mosques and playgrounds,” announced Israeli military officials. “IDF soldiers located large quantities of weapons inside some of the shafts. These findings are further proof of how Hamas deliberately uses the civilian population and infrastructure as a cover for its terrorist activity inside Gaza.”

And as the battle between IDF and Hamas forces reached a new level of ferocity, with house-to-house fighting across Gaza, a tiny and dwindling community of Christian Palestinians in the north has mostly sheltered in Catholic and Greek Orthodox parish compounds, while an increasing number have moved forward with plans to emigrate.

“Our staff report to us that they feel helpless,” Nadine Bahbah, a spokeswoman for Caritas Jerusalem, told the Register. “They are waiting to receive warnings any moment from the Israeli army to evacuate. There is no place left for them to go.”

O’Keefe told the Register that CRS provided support to Christians and others who have taken shelter in the two church compounds, while prioritizing the broader distribution of mattresses, hygiene kits and other provisions for Gazans who have been reduced to living on the streets.


Looking to Washington

But while the collapse of the cease-fire and the stalled hostage-prisoner exchange continue to impede the flow of aid, there are hopes that Washington will use its leverage as Israel’s most powerful ally and military donor to push Tel Aviv to allow more convoys to enter Gaza and pressure the IDF to be more active in protecting civilians. 

On Dec. 1, according to media reports, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer to emphasize the vital importance of maintaining the flow of aid into Gaza. 

Shortly after the call, Israel allowed for the aid convoys to continue, though it is unclear whether the supplies will reach the level permitted during the cease-fire. At the same time, some Democrat legislators have pushed back against what they see as a “blank-check relationship” between Washington and Israel.

As U.S. President Joe Biden called for Congress to approve a nearly-$106-billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other high-priority matters, Democratic lawmakers contended that Washington must prove that it seeks to alleviate the suffering in Gaza, as well as bolstering Israel’s offensive against Hamas. 

“There’s a big difference between asking and getting a commitment” from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on a plan to reduce civilian casualties and improve living conditions in Gaza, Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen told The Associated Press. “So our goal is to achieve results,” he added. “And not just set expectations.”

Responding to U.S. concerns about civilian casualties, the IDF said it had begun using an online map of Gaza neighborhoods that warns of any imminent Israeli attack, thus giving civilians precious time to safely evacuate.

Critics of Israel’s military strategy question whether this kind of digital tool will make a difference, given that many displaced Palestinians lack internet connectivity. 


Security Concerns

Meanwhile, some national security experts worry that Washington’s growing focus on nonmilitary issues posed by the Israel-Hamas conflict, including hostage talks and the prioritization of a cease-fire to secure the delivery of aid, hampers Israel’s ability to win its battle against a terrorist organization that poses a grave threat to the Jewish state.

“Winston Churchill’s observation that ‘without victory, there is no survival’ directly applies to Israel’s crisis,” wrote former national security adviser John Bolton in a Dec. 1 column for the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal. “Victory for Israel means achieving its self-defense goal of eliminating Hamas. Anything less means continuing life under threat, with Tehran and its terrorist surrogates confident that when Westerners say ‘never again’ they don’t really mean it.”

But as the civilian death toll mounts and a growing portion of the Gaza Strip is reduced to rubble, aid agencies hold out hope that Israel and Hamas will agree to another pause that extends further and that will give them time to make a difference. “This is a very complicated situation and unique in many ways,” said CRS’ O’Keefe. In most conflicts, noncombatants can flee “into the countryside and move to relative safety.” 

But even as “this kind of military campaign in a very tight space is creating a humanitarian need, the population cannot be isolated in a safe space where they can be helped.” 

“And if it keeps going like this,” O’Keefe added, “there won’t be any infrastructure left for those who survive.”