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How much humanitarian aid is getting into Gaza? The exact answer can be hard to know

An Egyptian truck driver removes a tarp covering humanitarian aid before it is inspected on its way to the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom Crossing in Israel on Dec. 22, 2023.
Alexi J. Rosenfeld
Getty Images
An Egyptian truck driver removes a tarp covering humanitarian aid before it is inspected on its way to the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom Crossing in Israel on Dec. 22, 2023.

TEL AVIV, Israel - The war between Israel and Hamas has created a spiraling humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

The numbers provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) detail the extent of the misery:

  • 1.7 million people displaced
  • 2.2 million at "imminent risk of famine"
  • Over 60% of housing in Gaza damaged
  • Roughly 17,000 children unaccompanied or separated from their parents

With over a million people now sheltering in Rafah, in southern Gaza, and only one third of the water pipes coming out of Israel currently operational, according to OCHA, the need for rapid humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave is growing by the day.

Roughly 500 trucks of humanitarian aid alone — never mind commercial supplies — are needed each day to meet the basic needs of the people in Gaza, according to Jonathan Fowler, a spokesperson for UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinians.

But since the start of the war, the number of trucks passing through in a day topped out at 300 — and that was on Nov. 28, during a week-long cease-fire. There are days when fewer than 10 trucks go through, according to Fowler. On a good day, maybe 200 or so, according to U.N. figures.

A small trickle of aid is entering Gaza through Egypt at the Rafah border crossing — four trucks here, eight trucks there. But most aid goes through Israel at crossings like Kerem Shalom in the south.

For those tracking the flow of aid, however, it can be difficult to decipher how many trucks are entering Gaza or the lags between when aid enters and when it is distributed.

For instance, according to an update from Israel's Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a unit of the Israeli military that oversees the transfer of aid into Gaza, 131 trucks of humanitarian aid were inspected and made it into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing on Monday — as well as two tankers of fuel and four tankers of cooking gas.

But the same page COGAT page also said 100 trucks had gone through to Gaza, or possibly 133. As of Wednesday, numbers from UNRWA say nine trucks entered on Monday.

Aid experts say there can be inconsistencies between the numbers listed by COGAT and those provided by UNRWA. Part of that can be attributed to a time lag, according Fowler. He said U.N. staff "painstakingly" log the number of trucks that cross the border, but could not speak for the Israeli military's figures.

COGAT did not respond to a request for comment on what the various numbers on its site mean.

Experts who monitor the flow of aid say they've noticed an uptick in discrepancies in recent days, making it difficult to gauge the precise amount of aid on the ground in Gaza at a moment when roughly more than half the population is now living in tents and other temporary shelters in Rafah, on the territory's border with Egypt.

"Over the past week and a half, we've noticed that the numbers are different depending on where you're looking," said Miriam Marmur, of Gisha, an Israeli non-profit that advocates for the freedom of movement of Palestinians.

Marmur said she was not blaming any particular party for the confusion, but called the situation "a mess." The overall point, she added, is that "not enough is entering."

She points out that Israel enforces restrictions that can make an already difficult job harder: Sometimes aid trucks carrying certain supplies, such as fuel, are blocked due to concerns that they may end up in the hands of Hamas militants. Other times, the delivery of aid is slowed by the lengthy and repeated inspections of trucks. In recent weeks, aid has also been slowed by the efforts of some Israeli protesters to block aid from entering Gaza over the anger they feel toward Hamas.

And what gets in can be very tough to distribute. War, after all, makes it tough to get aid to where it needs to go.

The latest reminder of that challenge came Tuesday, when the World Food Program announced it was pausing deliveries in the north of the Gaza Strip due to security concerns. The agency had only just restarted deliveries on Sunday following a three-week pause, but said its teams on the ground had been overwhelmed by "crowds of hungry people."

Describing the challenges, the WFP said in a statement, "First fending off multiple attempts by people trying to climb aboard our trucks, then facing gunfire once we entered Gaza City, our team was able to distribute a small quantity of the food along the way. On Monday, the second convoy's journey north faced complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order."

Trapped in Rafah

Meanwhile, fighting continues to rage in Gaza, as Israel continues its offensive in response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants that killed 1,200 people in southern Israel. Another 240 were taken hostage by Hamas, according to Israeli officials, with 134 still captive.

Israel's response to the attack has been fierce, with steady raids and missile attacks that have killed more than 29,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

As the Israeli military continues its operations in Gaza, it has ended up targeting apartment buildings, markets and hospitals, saying that Hamas uses these locations as cover or operational bases.

For civilians trapped by the fighting, there are fewer places to escape to. In Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, the Israeli military has already carried out several operations and is warning of a full-scale invasion. In one raid earlier this month, the Israeli military said it rescued two hostages from the city. But health officials in Gaza said the Israeli operation resulted in the deaths of 74 people.

On Sunday, an Israeli missile strike in Rafah struck the home where around 25 people had been sheltering, according to surviving family members. They said the remains of five have been found, and that five had survived. The rest are missing.

Among those still under the rubble: A newly married couple, Mariam Abdusalam Al-Sayyad Deeb and Liwaa Abdullah Ibrahim Jomaa, who married on Friday. The bride's uncle, Raed Al-Sayyad Abdusalam Deeb, told NPR about searching for his family members.

"They saved who they could. There are still dead under the rubble," he said.

Raed Al-Sayyad Abdusalam Deeb said an Israeli airstrike on Sunday struck a home where several members of his family had been sheltering in Rafah, leaving them trapped under the rubble. "There were women and children, a complete family," he said.
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Anas Baba
Raed Al-Sayyad Abdusalam Deeb said an Israeli airstrike on Sunday struck a home where several members of his family had been sheltering in Rafah, leaving them trapped under the rubble. "There were women and children, a complete family," he said.

"There were women and children, a complete family ... an elderly mother, the children's grandmother, their aunt, mother, uncle," he said, listing those lost.

"With no warning, they have nothing to do with the resistance, they have nothing to do with anything. They were unarmed," he added.

As he spoke, his brother, Abdusalam Deeb, clutched a photo of his daughter and wept.

"My daughter is under the rubble. I haven't seen my daughter yet. I wish I could see her. I wish I could say goodbye to her."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 2, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to the Kerem Shalom crossing as Kerem Shalmon.
D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz is an editor at Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, she worked at several news organizations covering wildfires, riots, earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, elections, political upheaval and refugee crises in several countries.
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