What a Top U.N. Official Sees on His Weekly Trips to Gaza

Since James McGoldrick’s appointment in December as the United Nations’ Humanitarian Coordinator for Palestine, he has been going to Gaza on a near-weekly basis to assess the needs of the population, and to help coördinate aid deliveries. Israel began bombing Gaza soon after the Hamas terrorist attack of October 7th, in which almost twelve hundred Israelis were killed; the ensuing war has now killed more than thirty thousand Palestinians, and the population in Gaza is facing extreme hunger, with Israel unwilling to allow sufficient aid into the territory. Last week, I spoke by phone with McGoldrick, who has previously worked in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, about his latest trip to Gaza. I wanted to hear from him about the situation on the ground; why aid deliveries are still being stymied; and what his conversations with Palestinian civilians have been like. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Can you describe what you saw in Gaza?

I came from Gaza on Tuesday night. I’d been there for a couple of days. I go in most weeks, and the idea is to assess with colleagues there to prepare for what we currently face ahead, which could be a military incursion into Rafah, or it could be a ceasefire or some sort of humanitarian pause. We have to prepare for all of them. So the idea is to take stock of what’s happening on the ground, and to check with the population.

What you do is you look at the key sectors which we are involved in, which are life support, health, water, sanitation, food support, and shelter provision, and to see how we’re able to supply all of those. Then we look at the issues and the challenges that are constraining or preventing us from delivering assistance. That’s often down to intermittent supplies coming into the Kerem Shalom crossing to Gaza. The other issue you face is law-and-order breakdown, which impacts our ability to bring goods inside Rafah in the south, but also to move material to the north as well.

Has the situation changed in the two-plus months you have been visiting?

I think what’s happened since I’ve been going there is it started off with a much smaller number of people in Rafah being congregated there because of fleeing and becoming displaced. Obviously, as time has gone on, the hostilities have opened up to more places. Originally, the first batch of people coming and going was from the north, and then after that you had the military incursions coming into the south. Because of that, a new population movement started. Every week I came here, you saw more and more people coming and putting more and more pressure on very limited space, on very limited capacity for us as humanitarians to address those needs.

The conditions were very overcrowded, and very congested. We didn’t have the proper ability to address water-sanitation issues, shelter issues, and as a result of that you had quite a lot of disease outbreaks, like hepatitis A. We had a lot of diarrhea diseases, a lot of respiratory infections. The weather was quite cold up until now. The health system had been caught up in so many military operations that it had virtually collapsed, so there wasn’t a health-service provision.

Meanwhile, the food supply was interrupted by things like demonstrations inside the crossing point where we load and reload the trucks. There was a lot of insecurity, smuggling, a lot of attacks on the trucks. And then when you’d come into the main area of Rafah, there was congestion and then there was more ransacking and looting.

But this time, when I went, the noticeable difference is the numbers of people in the heavily populated areas have reduced, and so it’s easier to move around. Not simple, but easier. And that’s because a lot of people fear the potential military incursion into Rafah, which has been suggested by the Israeli authorities. And so a lot of people are fearful that that will happen, and, as a result, many, many people have left and gone either north toward Deir al-Balah or have gone by the coast.

Can you talk more about the attacks on the trucks?

What happens is the trucks leave Kerem Shalom, which is on the Israeli side, and they then come over to Rafah, which is on the Gazan side. While they come over, there’s quite a long stretch of a corridor, and then that is very prone to being attacked by Bedouin families or gangs who see the opportunity of stealing stuff off the backs of the trucks, and that became quite heavy for a while. Some of the staff members were beaten up, some truck drivers were beaten up. One or two staff members were hit by rocks that were thrown at them. The trucks get smashed up, and the stuff gets looted or ransacked off the backs of the trucks.

We tried to put in place some security procedures, tried to put in place some connections with the communities nearby to try to prevent that. It seems to have reduced the attacks somewhat, but it’s still a problem. We used to have what they call “blue policemen,” which were the regular police, Palestinian police, that we worked with, but Israel didn’t like the fact that we used these police because it said they were all Hamas. And so there were a number of occasions where policemen who were involved in convoy escorts had their cars struck by shells or by air strikes. So the policemen are very unwilling to join us now. That’s one of the reasons that the insecurity and the law-and-order issue emerged.

That, plus the fact that we had so little in the way of regular supplies. People are very desperate, and they’re hungry and their families are hungry, and they don’t know when the next truck is coming by. So when they see a truck coming with food on the back, they tend to find a way of stopping it, and then they ransack the whole cargo, and then they try to feed their families. Some of it is organized, some of it is opportunistic, but most of it is desperate.

I was going to ask how much of it is criminal activity, because we have seen in the news people who are just starving and their children are starving, and so there are going to be breakdowns of order for obvious reasons.

Yeah, I think it’s a bit of both. I think there are different constituencies who are involved in it. There’s obviously some sort of organized crime. Rafah is on the border with Egypt. It’s always had smuggling. I think the majority of people who are taking stuff off of trucks, stopping the trucks and ransacking them, are desperate, desperate people, because there’s been no food going in on a regular basis for nearly two months now. Anything that comes, people jump on it, and it’s not surprising.

We have been reading for a while now how insufficient the amount of goods coming through is. Can you see that register with the people there?

When all this started, it was like the shock of having to move. Some people moved many times, and then I think that they then wondered what was happening next. People then sort of resigned themselves to seeing that this might be it for some time, as depressing as it is. What we try to do is find a way of supplying enough services to maintain their lives, to support them.

But that’s not been an easy thing to do because of the supply issues and the security issues, and we haven’t been able to give people what they need. Then, when these military incursions are being threatened, and it’s something that’s been in the cards for a while now, people get very nervous. They don’t know whether to stay or to go. The shock of where they are now—they’re starting to realize that this is it. It’s maybe going to be this way, and this is as good as it’s going to get for some time. I think people just try to get their heads around that—what does it mean for them and their families? A lot of people are now stuck in a place where they don’t see any real positive future. So it’s trying to keep people on life support, trying to keep people alive by giving them the basics. At the same time, hopefully we can get to a time where there is a ceasefire or there’s a humanitarian pause when we can do more for them. And then hopefully at that time there’s some chance that people might start to go back where they originally came from.

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