B’Tselem: Gaza needs a humanitarian pause now
As soon as the war broke out, Israel sealed the Gaza Strip on all sides, trapped its 2.2 million residents inside it and cut them off from the world. Since then, living conditions in the Strip have grown unbearably difficult, and the humanitarian crisis is deteriorating by the day. Residents have no electricity as Israel has cut off the supply and refuses to let in fuel that could be used to run Gaza’s power plant. The fuel shortage has also created a severe water shortage, as water pumps and desalination plants barely function.
According to figures released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), about 1.5 million residents have been displaced since the start of the war, and approximately half of them are sheltering in overcrowded UNRWA facilities in numbers far exceeding capacity, and in intolerable living conditions. On average, UNRWA facilities have one toilet per 160 people and one shower for 700. Such conditions exacerbate the risk of infections and epidemics. Thousands of cases of infectious diseases have already been reported. In the northern Gaza Strip, about 160,000 people are sheltering in UNRWA facilities, but the agency is unable to provide them with services, and their condition is unknown.
The lack of electricity and fuel is impacting hospitals as well, which now rely on generators with depleting fuel reserves. According to OCHA, since the war began, 14 out of 35 hospitals have ceased to function, as well as 46 out of 72 primary care facilities. The remaining hospitals are in a state of collapse as they are inundated with thousands of people wounded in Israeli strikes and grappling with a severe shortage of medicines – including anesthetics, medical equipment and staff. Physicians report having to choose which patients to treat and perform surgeries in impossible conditions. The lack of water, sanitation materials and medical equipment makes it impossible to maintain a sterile environment, increasing the risk of infection among the sick, the wounded and medical staff.
Gaza is also in the throes of a food shortage. Only a handful of bakeries continue to work, and residents wait for hours in bread lines or forego the experience altogether. OCHA reports that essential commodities have nearly run out, and the few that remain cannot be delivered to stores due to the strikes and lack of fuel.
Two weeks into the war, under heavy pressure, Israel agreed to let humanitarian aid into the Strip via Rafah Crossing. On 21 October 2023, the first trucks carrying food, water and medical supplies arrived. According to OCHA, until 8 November 2023, a total of 756 trucks entered the Strip. This is a drop in the ocean that cannot begin to meet the needs. Before the war, 500 trucks carrying goods entered the Strip every day on average. Furthermore, the water supplied in these trucks accounts for just about four percent of the population’s consumption needs per day, based on a calculation of three liters per person per day, which should be enough for drinking, cooking and hygiene. The World Health Organization recommended minimum amount of water per person per day is 100 liters. OCHA reports that aid barely makes it to the northern Gaza Strip and is being distributed mostly to the displaced in the south.
Despite the dire situation in Gaza, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, has denied any humanitarian crisis occurring in Gaza at all. This claim defies reality not only considering the alarming figures about the current situation but also because the Gaza Strip had already been in a humanitarian crisis for years when the war broke out – a crisis created entirely by Israel when it imposed a closure on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas took power. Gaza’s economy soon collapsed: before the war, about 80% of its residents relied on aid organizations for their subsistence. Most had no access to potable water, and power was supplied only several hours a day. Unemployment rates skyrocketed, reaching about 45% in the general population, and soaring to 60% among people under the age of 29.
A humanitarian pause is essential for allowing food, water, medicine and fuel to enter in quantities sufficient for the needs of all Gaza residents. Israel vehemently opposes this, claiming a pause in the fighting would give Hamas a chance to regroup and that there is no justification for it as long as the hostages are not returned. These claims cannot justify the indescribable harm meted out to the roughly 2.2 million people living in the Strip who are now caught up in a daily struggle for survival, not just because of Israel’s incessant strikes but also because of the critical shortage of food and water.
Bringing humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip right is not a favor Israel is being asked to extend to the civilian population there. Rather, it is Israel’s duty under international humanitarian law which stipultates that parties to hostilities must allow rapid delivery of humanitarian aid – including food and medicine – to the civilian population. This is certainly the case when one party is putting the area under a blockade that could result in the actual starvation of the residents. According to the ICRC’s authoritative commentary, aid cannot be denied on an arbitrary basis, and in case the civilian population is in real danger and humanitarian agencies are able to assist – the parties must allow it. In the past, when parties to hostilities limited humanitarian aid in other places in the world, their actions attracted immediate rebuke from other world nations, the UN Security Council and the ICRC.
These rules apply to Israel as well, as they do to any country in the world that is at war, and all the more so given the fact that Israel is prohibiting Gaza residents from exiting the area and seeing to their own needs. Claiming humanitarian aid would help Hamas does not cancel these rules and cannot justify withholding food, water, medicine and fuel from the 2.2 million citizens of the Strip. Continuing to do so is tantamount to deliberately and disproportionately targeting civilians, and as such, is unlawful.
Contrary to the concept espoused by Israeli policymakers, not everyone in the Gaza Strip is Hamas. 2.2 million people live there – human beings with faces, names, and families, who are in desperate need of food, water, medicine, hospitals, electricity, and shelter just so they can somehow survive. Claiming humanitarian aid cannot be brought in the name of the need to fight Hamas implies an underlying assumption that, at least for now, these civilians can be ignored and left to starve, get sick, and die. This is as cruel as it is willfully blind to the humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of our eyes.
The rules of international humanitarian law were designed precisely for situations like these, and whatever Israel is facing is not unique. These rules reflect the moral view that even when war rages, the obligation to protect civilians still stands. Israel formally claims it shares this view and repeatedly states it is following these rules. However, its rejection of a humanitarian pause to allow the delivery of basic aid to civilians proves otherwise.