With More Bombing And Less Aid, Gaza’s Humanitarians Are Feeling The Squeeze

Samah Kassab has been working as a humanitarian for almost six years, living in Gaza City with her two teenagers while providing sanitary products and fresh food for the Palestinian women and girls in her community. Partnering with local aid groups, she would also make sure women and children in Gaza have access to psychosocial

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Samah Kassab has been working as a humanitarian for almost six years, living in Gaza City with her two teenagers while providing sanitary products and fresh food for the Palestinian women and girls in her community. Partnering with local aid groups, she would also make sure women and children in Gaza have access to psychosocial support. It was fulfilling work.

But after Israel invaded Gaza nearly eight months ago, the world changed for Kassab and other Palestinian aid workers trying to continue their once-fulfilling work while keeping their families alive.

Kassab and her family have been displaced six times since Israel launched its devastating military offensive in response to Hamas’ deadly attack on Oct. 7. After feeling the terror that came with watching her mother slip into a diabetic coma while living in a tent, it became Kassab who needed the psychosocial support.

Kassab left for Egypt in February with her two children, leaving behind the rest of her family in Gaza so that her 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son’s safety came first. All three of them now receive counseling for the mental trauma they continue to endure.

“For my children, I was feeling helpless when I couldn’t prevent my son or daughter from being afraid during the bombing at night. Nor could I prevent the planes, the air warplanes, from doing so,” she told HuffPost in an interview. “It was very difficult for me as a mother when I couldn’t bring the food and protection that they needed. Nor could I keep them warm enough at night.”

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air-and-ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza, on May 1src.
Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air-and-ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza, on May 10.

Abdel Kareem Hana via Associated Press

Israel’s ongoing invasion in Gaza has caused massive destruction and devastation, killing an estimated 35,000 people — mostly women and children. Its attacks have wounded about double that number, displacing most of the population of 2.3 million while destroying necessary infrastructure, including hospitals, shelters and universities. This has created a starvation crisis and disease epidemic, and Israeli forces and activists continue to block aid from entering the Palestinian enclave.

All the while, Israeli forces have also targeted helpers, such as doctors, aid workers and journalists, as they continue to retaliate for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that left 1,200 dead and an estimated 240 people taken hostage.

Due to the bombardment, Israel’s military had virtually corralled about 1.4 million Palestinians from north and central Gaza into the enclave’s overcrowded southernmost city of Rafah, which is near the largest aid crossing. Humanitarian groups from Gaza, the Middle East and the West kept working to bring in the trickle of aid that Israel allowed through the crossings at Egypt’s border despite the risks of being attacked by the military.

But earlier this month, Israel ordered Palestinians in Rafah to evacuate the city ahead of its planned ― and highly criticized ― siege. The military closed up the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings in the south, preventing families from leaving Gaza or accessing vital humanitarian assistance while the little aid they already had continued to dwindle. Israel has forcibly displaced about 600,000 Palestinians out of Rafah, according to the United Nations, and no food has entered the two main border crossings since May 6.

“Most of our operations were ceased, except for online follow-ups. We use the hotline to follow up and document people’s needs,” Buthaina Subeh, director of the Rafah-based Wefaq Society for Women and Child Care aid group, said in a statement Tuesday. “However, we are unable to operate on-site as most of our crew members lost their homes or were displaced to Al-Mawasi. We do not even know where most of our crew members are.”

In addition to the blocked crossings, humanitarian assistance is facing hurdles by Israelis themselves. On Wednesday, a Palestinian truck driver was severely beaten by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank because, according to Israel’s Defense Ministry, they thought he was delivering aid to Gaza. Footage from the ground earlier this week showed Israeli settlers attacking Jordanian trucks that were carrying humanitarian assistance to Gaza, throwing food and lifesaving supplies off the trucks and setting the vehicles on fire.

BREAKING: Mobs of Israeli settlers attack Jordanian trucks en route to the Gaza Strip and unload the humanitarian aid on board the trucks. pic.twitter.com/tR0IM9XgUX

— Quds News Network (@QudsNen) May 15, 2024

Since joining ActionAid in 2018, Kassab has coordinated with local partners in Gaza to establish dozens of sanitation units for women and girls, plan recreational activities for Palestinian children and distribute vegetable baskets, hygiene kits and hot meals. She serves as their senior program officer in Gaza.

As the Israeli attacks on Gaza continued to intensify this year, Kassab struggled to find enough food, water and health care for her own family. The humanitarian spent the last winter in Rafah, sharing a tent with 21 family members. The lack of proper medical care, sufficient food and clean water “caused many skin diseases, epidemics in light of this severe crowding in the shelters and tents,” she said. Some of the children in her family had contracted hepatitis A, a viral liver infection that usually stems from water contamination.

It was “not easy” to feed her children while Kassab was in Rafah, she said, describing her life in a tent as a “shock.”

“I cried a lot when it rained for the first time since we moved to the tent, as my brothers were trying to close the holes through which rainwater leaked,” she said. “I still remember that night when my mother fell into a diabetic coma and we couldn’t find a car to take her to the hospital, in light of the lack of transportation and lack of fuel which operates the car. So I was very terrified, and we were barely able to find the car, and she was saved at the last minute.”

“I know that we cannot cover all the needs of people there. It will be … not possible. But we are doing our best. We have to.”

– Samah Kassab, senior program officer for ActionAid Palestine

After three months in Rafah, Kassab managed to escape to Egypt, a difficult and usually expensive journey to make. Now she is trying to continue coordinating aid while attempting to communicate with her relatives who, last she heard, were still alive. But with no electricity, no network connection and intentionally blocked aid routes to the enclave, Kassab said she’s at a loss.

“I know that we cannot cover all the needs of people there,” she said. “It will be, yanni [you know], not possible. But we are doing our best. We have to.”

“The Rafah invasion is exacerbating food shortages, leaving people desperate for essentials,” Sami Matar, the Gaza team lead for aid group Anera, said in a statement on Monday. “Crossings are closed, and there is no cash available in Gaza. Fear of chaos and civil unrest is palpable, with tensions rising over basic needs. Starvation looms again unless aid arrives soon.”

Palestinian truck drivers and United Nations vehicles wait Tuesday near the Rafah crossing on the Gaza side to cross into Egypt after the Israeli army took control of the crossing and announced it would close the route ahead of an assault on Rafah, Gaza.
Palestinian truck drivers and United Nations vehicles wait Tuesday near the Rafah crossing on the Gaza side to cross into Egypt after the Israeli army took control of the crossing and announced it would close the route ahead of an assault on Rafah, Gaza.

Hani Alshaer/Anadolu via Getty Images

About 2,000 trucks loaded with aid are stranded on the other side of the Rafah crossing, and supplies and fuel are running so low that vital infrastructure, such as water systems, could be irreparably damaged, according to a spokesperson for the United Nations’ humanitarian office in Gaza.

“Everything runs on fuel, and until that situation changes, we only have two, three days until all humanitarian operations will come to a halt,” the spokesperson, Olga Cherevko, told Anadolu Agency on Wednesday.

Matar said that he, his family and his colleagues at Anera were forced to move south, where displaced Palestinians were setting up tents wherever there was room or simply sleeping on the streets. The aid worker’s own home in north Gaza was completely destroyed.

“All of our staff in the south are living in tents alongside the people they serve,” he said.

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