How Israel’s Inspection Process Is Obstructing Aid Delivery

Last week, the Democratic senators Jeff Merkley and Chris Van Hollen travelled to the Rafah border crossing in Egypt, the entry point for many of the aid trucks into the Gaza Strip. The humanitarian situation in Gaza, where more than twenty-three thousand people are estimated to have been killed in Israel’s military campaign, is extremely dire, and the number of trucks full of food and medicine and other vital goods is insufficient. As recently as Thursday, the United Nations reported that only a hundred and forty-five trucks entered Gaza through Rafah and Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing, which is close to Rafah, but on the Israeli side; human-rights groups have stated that more than three times that many are required. Israel contends that aid trucks have to be closely scrutinized to insure that weapons are not being smuggled into Gaza, but after watching the inspection process at Rafah, Merkley and Van Hollen called the Israeli approach “arbitrary.”

I recently spoke by phone with Senator Van Hollen, of Maryland, who was elected to the position in 2016, after serving seven terms in the House of Representatives. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his view of the problems with the American-Israeli relationship, why so little aid is reaching Gazans, and whether Israel is concerned with the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

What was the purpose of your trip?

The purpose was twofold. The first was to go to the Rafah border crossing to see firsthand what the humanitarian situation was in Gaza and whether there were steps we could take to improve it. And we found a humanitarian crisis that was bad and getting worse, and we made observations on why that was the case and what we could be doing to improve the situation.

Why is it getting worse?

Well, it’s getting worse in terms of the level of hunger, and that is the result of people who’ve been denied access to the food they need for too long, and are not getting adequate levels of humanitarian supplies, as well as a dramatic reduction—it went down to zero in early December—of commercial trucks going through the crossings, and of course those trucks used to supply goods to the people of Gaza.

You also said that the inspection process was “arbitrary.” What does that mean in practice?

One of the things we witnessed personally was a large warehouse filled with humanitarian goods that had been rejected at Israeli inspection points. Goods like medical kits used to deliver babies, water-testing kits, water filters, solar-powered desalinization units, tents that people said might’ve been returned because they had metal poles.

So a whole collection of rejected items that seemed purely arbitrary. And I will also say that when one item on a truck is rejected, the entire truck is turned back, and in talking to a truck driver and others we learned that some of these trucks take twenty days to go from the starting point to delivering assistance. So when I say, “a whole truck is turned back,” it goes all the way back to the beginning of the process.

Have you talked to Israeli officials about why this process is functioning the way it is?

We intend to take what we learned and talk to Israeli officials, and we are also going to put together a letter to David Satterfield—he’s our envoy who’s coördinating the American humanitarian effort—about all the items that we think need to be improved. I know that he is already working on some of them, but we want to provide him with a comprehensive list.

You said that you thought the situation in terms of hunger is getting worse, but the Biden Administration has put forward the line that essentially things are improving, that they’ve pressured Israel to allow more humanitarian aid in, and that broadly Israel is responding to that pressure and things are getting better. Is that accurate?

My sense was things are not getting better, either in terms of the humanitarian situation in Gaza or a reduction in high levels of civilian casualties. I track the civilian casualties very closely. They’ve actually gone up in the last couple of days, since the Administration has said that the Israelis are reducing their footprint and tempo. It is true that Israel has removed some of the forces it has in northern Gaza because they’ve essentially taken control of that area of Gaza, but they’ve simply concentrated their efforts in the south, and so we’ve seen no real reduction in the high levels of civilian casualties.

In terms of the assistance, you obviously have a crisis situation, and every international organization that we spoke to indicated that they’ve operated worldwide for decades and they’ve never seen a worse crisis. And they said that the deconfliction process in Gaza is totally broken, meaning humanitarian-aid workers are putting their lives at risk every time they go out to distribute goods to people who need them, and that there was this very cumbersome and arbitrary process for getting goods into Gaza. [Deconfliction refers to procedures for reducing the risk of unintended casualties among allies and aid groups; in December, an Israeli strike at the Kerem Shalom crossing forced the World Food Program and other aid groups to suspend operations there.]

Do you think that the bombing campaign needs to stop until the humanitarian situation improves?

Yes, that’s accurate. What I’ve stated is that because the Netanyahu government has shown itself incapable of reducing the high levels of civilian casualties and making sure that we get sufficient humanitarian supplies into Gaza, we need to have a humanitarian timeout, a humanitarian pause.

I saw a statement where you said, “Secretary [Antony] Blinken and President Biden had been right to insist on two things: a reduction in the unacceptable levels of civilian casualties and much more cooperation when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance. We’ve not seen that.” The word that you use there is “insist,” and I’m curious whether the Israelis in your mind perceive us as insisting on anything if essentially full diplomatic support, such as weapons sales without congressional approval, are going to continue regardless of whether they do the things that we’re “insisting” on.

I understand, and my view is that the Biden Administration has not adequately exercised U.S. influence and leverage to achieve our goals. There’s a big difference between stating our objectives and achieving them. And while we’ve seen some minimal improvement in certain areas—for example, Kerem Shalom crossing was finally opened—the reality is that we continue to see Secretary Blinken make these statements, and we continue to see Prime Minister Netanyahu rebuff him and turn his back on major U.S. requests, not just with respect to reducing the number of civilian casualties and getting more humanitarian assistance in but making sure that the Palestinian Authority gets its funds. As you know, the Israeli minister Bezalel Smotrich has dramatically cut those back. So you’ve got the spectacle of Secretary Blinken being in Israel saying, “We need to have a real two-state solution to provide some light at the end of this very dark tunnel,” and that very day Netanyahu slaps down that idea. They’re saying the right things, but they need a strategy to hold Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition more accountable.

How do you understand this Administration’s policy? Because it seems like this has been going on for somewhat of a long time now—this back-and-forth with the Israeli government—but the weapons sales keep coming. Nothing really seems to change.

I think that President Biden’s strategy was to show the people of Israel that the United States stood firmly with them in the aftermath of the horrific Hamas attacks of October 7th, and I strongly supported the President in doing that. I think the Administration hoped that by providing that warm embrace, the United States would have more influence in terms of how Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition conducted the war. But clearly they’ve not succeeded in having much of an impact. I don’t deny they’ve made some marginal gains on the edges, but the over-all results show that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition are essentially rebuffing the United States on almost every front.

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