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Trudy Rubin: No more US weapons to Israel until Palestinian civilians are protected

Trudy Rubin, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Op Eds

When Israeli troops killed seven aid workers from chef José Andrés’ amazing World Central Kitchen operation in Gaza — six of them foreign-born — the White House and the Israeli government were finally forced to confront Gaza’s humanitarian disaster with more than words.

Almost overnight, under President Joe Biden’s belated threat to condition U.S. aid to Israel over its treatment of Gazan civilians, the situation changed — at least on the surface.

Israel doubled the number of trucks permitted into Gaza — proof that the limits on the number entering previously had been largely political. As David Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy for Gaza humanitarian issues, noted this week, the increased delivery “doesn’t make up for five months of something very, very different.”

Yet, the threat of famine in Gaza — or worse — has not lifted.

On Wednesday, the top U.S. aid official, Samantha Power, endorsed the findings of United Nations and humanitarian agencies that famine has already begun in northern Gaza. That reality will only worsen unless Biden presses Israel into making a strategic, not tactical, shift in how it treats Gaza’s desperate civilians and aid workers.

Indeed, Israel’s indifference to civilian casualties has been a strategic disaster in its war against Hamas, turning even close allies into severe critics, while deep-sixing any chance of normalized relations with Arab Gulf partners. There is no sign, however, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has any such strategic shift — or any clear strategy for a Gaza war endgame — in mind.

Because Israel refuses to let foreign press into Gaza, except in closely managed trips with minders, many Americans have no idea just how horrendous the humanitarian crisis is.

When the International Rescue Committee’s vice president for emergencies, Bob Kitchen, arrived recently in Rafah at the southern tip of Gaza, he saw a disaster zone that outdid most of the catastrophe zones he has visited in his decades as a humanitarian worker.

“It was a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe, like Sudan or Yemen,” Kitchen told me, just after his return to New York. Once a small town, Rafah was “absolutely jam-packed” with a million Palestinians whom Israel had ordered to move south from their homes in Gaza City or central Gaza. In other words, Rafah now contains more than half the population of the Gaza Strip.

They were camped out under plastic sheets, or in the rough, with their families “on every square inch, living in upper stories of unfinished buildings with no walls, on the center medians of two-way streets, on the beach, without enough food, water, or any sanitation,” Kitchen said. Palestinians are also camped in schoolyards, mosques, U.N. buildings, or anywhere they can find a clear spot of ground.

Kitchen and other nongovernmental organization (NGO) officials tell me that the main problems with accessing and distributing food aid and water were not theft by Hamas, but the complex, shifting, and arbitrary Israeli rules and inspections — often turning away whole trucks because one item was considered to have a possible use as a weapon — along with limited access points for entry.

But the World Central Kitchen killings revealed the deadliest threat to aid delivery: Aid workers and convoys are often arbitrarily targeted.

What happened to those seven brave volunteers was more of a norm rather than the accident the Israeli military claimed in its apology. But when it happens to Palestinians — who have lost 200 aid workers to Israeli strikes — their deaths get shrugged off.

In the World Central Kitchen case, the movements of its workers after overseeing the unloading of 100 tons of food brought into Gaza by sea were specifically coordinated with the Israelis and took place on a road the Israeli military controlled.

 

“They were targeting us in a deconflicting zone, in an area controlled by the [Israel Defense Forces]. They knew that it was our teams moving on that road … with three cars,” Andrés told Reuters emotionally, shortly after the bombing. “This was not just a bad luck situation where ‘oops’ we dropped the bomb in the wrong place.”

An internal Israeli investigation labeled the tragedy a one-off mistake, dismissing or chastising officers and men who failed to obey military rules. Yet, aid organizations readily cite similar tragedies involving their Palestinian staff.

Mousa Shawwa, the logistics chief for the American humanitarian aid group Anera, was killed on March 8, along with his son, by a missile fired into his home as he returned from overseeing an aid delivery to Rafah. Anera, too, had cleared Shawwa, his route, and his home with the Israelis, giving exact coordinates ahead of time, I was told by its CEO, Sean Carroll.

“I’d like to know exactly what happens after they put [the information we give them] into the system,” Carroll said. “We are waiting for more assurances on the safety of our aid workers.”

They have received no explanation from the Israel Defense Forces.

The Israeli press has reported on the laxity of Israeli rules of engagement in Gaza, with the use of an artificial intelligence system to help identify targets (a loosely worded Israeli denial followed, but the U.S. is supposedly looking into the allegation).

You get the idea of how loose those rules are (or how loosely they’re followed without repercussions) from the disaster that occurred when three escaped Israeli hostages approached an Israeli military unit in December, with their chests bared (showing they had no explosives) and waving a white flag, while yelling in Hebrew. They were all shot dead.

Most Israeli forces have withdrawn from southern Gaza for the time being. The broader civilian tragedy could escalate dramatically, however, if Netanyahu carries out his pledge to attack Rafah, where the bulk of remaining Hamas forces and its leaders are hiding underground. Biden has demanded that the Israelis provide safety for over a million Gazans sheltering there.

So far, except for talk about purchasing 40,000 tents, the Israelis have made no move to provide shelter for these Palestinians outside Rafah. Aid agencies say it would take months to set up camps, even if there were level ground available that wasn’t littered with unexploded ordinance and was safe from attack. No such space exists.

“I have never seen two million people cornered the way Gazans are now, starved, attacked, penned in by the sea and a big concrete wall [on the border with Egypt], and the world is allowing it,” Kitchen said. Not only that, but the United States continues to send weapons and planes.

Israel has the right to self-defense, and the right to smash Hamas, but as Andrés said: “You cannot save the hostages by bombing every building in Gaza. You cannot win this war by starving an entire population.”

The United States should not be sending more weapons to Israel until Netanyahu produces a strategy that follows the chef’s wise advice.

___


©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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