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On board a Jordanian aid drop flight over devastated northern Gaza: ‘The last resort’

Jordanian soldiers release aid via parachutes over Gaza (Bel Trew)
Jordanian soldiers release aid via parachutes over Gaza (Bel Trew)

The destruction of north Gaza slides into view as the rear doors of the Jordanian C-130 aircraft yawn open.

Towns – that have been flattened into grey dust – edge what was once farmlands, now chewed up by a chaotic snarl of tank tracks. Whole neighbourhoods have been obliterated to the point they look like the ashy bottom of a fire hearth. The level of devastation is chilling.

From this height you cannot see the estimated 300,000 Palestinians who still live in this hellish moonscape, with little to no supplies. Hundreds of thousands of people who the United Nations believe are one step away from – if not already gripped by – famine. A place where families are reduced to eating animal feed and drinking toilet water. A place where according to the United Nations, children are not just dying from bombing but also from hunger.

Against that backdrop, the 16 wooden pallets loaded with boxes of food – and topped by parachutes – that line the bottom of this military transport plane seem woefully insufficient.

Israel has launched a ferocious bombardment and a crippling siege of Gaza in its war to “eliminate” Hamas in the wake of the deadly 7 October attacks. That has led to the north of the enclave - that needs the most aid - becoming almost completely inaccessible to supply deliveries by land.

Dropping food from the skies over north Gaza right now is one of the very few ways to get to desperate civilians, although there are concerns it can be risky, expensive, inefficient and potentially even dangerous.

“One minute to drop,” a Jordanian soldier shouts, as the rest of the troops on board ready themselves. Deafened by the roar of the engines, they finish the countdown with their fingers.

The pallets – which have solidarity messages and pictures drawn by Jordanian schoolchildren taped to their sides – are released from their straps. They roll with a kind of fury into the brilliant blue of the sky. In a flurry, the parachutes unfurl and they float to the ground.

This is one of nine airdrops over northern Gaza that the Jordanian Armed Forces said they have conducted on Thursday with Egypt, the US, France, Netherlands and Belgium. The Jordanian Air Force (JAF) said they have led 29 in total and continue to deliver aid to Gaza through flight missions to Egypt and truck convoys via land borders.

It is impossible to accurately guide these kinds of mass airdrops. Some aid agencies told The Independent that boxes of aid have landed on the sea, on the tops of buildings and some have even blown into Israel. They can also be dangerous on Friday, five Palestinians were killed and several were wounded when boxes of aid from a different aid drop fell on them in northwest Gaza, said Mahmoud Basal, spokesman of the Civil Emergency Service in Gaza. It was not clear which nation had carried out the aid drop.

Video shared online purportedly showed the pallets landing from the sky over the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City terrifying civilians below. The parachute of one does not appear to be fully furled.

Jordanian Air Force prepares to drop food aid into Gaza (Bel Trew)
Jordanian Air Force prepares to drop food aid into Gaza (Bel Trew)

“Aid drops are a final resort not a full solution,” says Dr Hussein Al Shebli, head of the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO), as he walks The Independent through the gruelling task of navigating a maze of Israeli restrictions and other logistical difficulties when attempting to deliver aid to millions in need in Gaza. The JHCO an non-governmental organisation coordinates with the JAF, and helps the delivery of aid from foreign governments, international aid agencies and local charities via all routes including truck convoys by land and airdrops.

So far he says they have delivered more than 7,160 tonnes of aid from Jordan since 7 October via nearly 500 trucks and dozens of airdrops.

“We hope to return to the land route to north Gaza and to find real solutions to at least get past these difficulties we are talking about,” Dr Shebli says. “But if there is no way to get to the north of Gaza we will continue the airdrops.”

Right now, the JHCO still has 10 packed warehouses of medical, food and shelter supplies that could be delivered immediately if they could get unfettered access to Gaza. The only true way to meet this unprecedented need on the ground is a ceasefire, Dr Shebli adds.

Israel has launched its heaviest ever bombardment of Gaza and imposed a crippling siege in retaliation for Hamas’s bloody October attack, in which around 1,200 people were killed and another 250 taken hostage. At least 136 hostages are still believed to be inside Gaza. The UN said this week that it has seen credible evidence that hostages have been subjected to sexual violence and ill treatment in captivity.

Aid drops are a final resort not a solution. We hope to return to the land route

Dr Hussein Al Shebli, head Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO)

In Gaza, since October, Israel’s ferocious air, sea and ground assaults have killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of them women and children, according to Palestinian healthcare officials.

More than 60 per cent of Gaza’s homes and buildings have been destroyed or damaged, and around three-quarters of the 2.3 million-strong population are displaced.

At least 25 per cent of the population is just one step from famine, and the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in the region has reported that children have started to starve to death.

Gaza is only 26 miles (42km) long and in some places just six miles wide. The terrain is flat, which should make access simple, and there are at least half a dozen land crossing points to the Strip along its borders with Israel and Egypt. And yet north Gaza is experiencing one of the most acute humanitarian catastrophes in the world.

Some of the world’s biggest aid agencies and charities, say it is very hard to take supplies into Gaza, and almost impossible to get them to the north of the strip. Some countries and aid organisations have, therefore, undertaken “last resort” airdrops there.

The Jordanian military has launched dozens of airdrops due to blocks on land routes to north Gaza (Bel Trew)
The Jordanian military has launched dozens of airdrops due to blocks on land routes to north Gaza (Bel Trew)

According to multiple UN agencies, Palestinian, international and Israeli charities, as well as British MPs who have submitted requests for information, Israel is denying entry of a slew of aid goods – from anaesthesia medicines to water filters to, somewhat incongruously, dates with stones in them. This is because they are apparently labelled at risk of “dual use” by the militants.

Multiple organisations, including the JHCO and UN agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) told The Independent shipments are frequently turned back or held at the only crossing points at great cost and at Israeli military checkpoints inside Gaza when they approach the north.

The strangulation of supplies – and the reported targeting of Palestinian police inside Gaza – has led to a breakdown in law and order, sparking concerns about safety for convoys in the north as the population has become increasingly desperate. The WFP, that has had to suspend convoys, said they were are overwhelmed by starving people and even gangs in the hardest hit areas. Aid convoys have also come under Israeli fire: on 5 February the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA reported that one of its convoys was hit by an Israel tank shell. The Israeli military has yet to publicly comment but said it is looking into the incident.

When approached by The Independent for comment the Israeli military said: “The IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] carries out humanitarian operations and will continue to do so. The decisions on the locations and timings of them are based on assessments of the situation.”

Destroyed neighbourhoods and what appear to be tank tracks in Gaza (Bel Trew)
Destroyed neighbourhoods and what appear to be tank tracks in Gaza (Bel Trew)

The Independent reached out to the COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry unit tasked with coordinating with the Palestinians, but they have yet to reply. On Thursday, COGAT wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: “There are no limits to the amount of humanitarian aid that can enter Gaza,” adding that more than 4,900 metric tonnes of aid entered that day. Despite overwhelming evidence and international pressure over the situation in Gaza, COGAT publicly denies there is a humanitarian crisis in the besieged territory.

The US has leverage as Israel’s staunchest ally and supplier of military aid, but has apparently been unable to secure access to north Gaza, leaving them and other nations to take to the skies. Washington reported that it has dropped 36,800 meal equivalents into north Gaza in recent days.

But rights groups warn airdrops are “the least effective way to get aid in”.

“It is simply not possible to airdrop in aid to the scale of what’s really needed to keep people alive,” says Bushra Khalidi from Oxfam, adding that the capacity of a plane is less than a truck.

“It’s also the most expensive and the most dangerous and chaotic way for desperate people to receive aid. Parachuting in aid by air is always the ‘last resort’ – the final measure you reluctantly turn to when everything else has been tried and failed, and where all the normal, better routes are utterly impossible to find,” she adds.

Shaina Low from the Norwegian Refugee Council tells The Independent that the most vulnerable will find it hard to access aid delivered by airdrops, that are not coordinated by aid officials on the ground and fairly distributed.

Jordan says it has warehouses packed with aid it wants to send to Gaza (Bel Trew)
Jordan says it has warehouses packed with aid it wants to send to Gaza (Bel Trew)

“Women-led households, elderly people, people with disabilities, are not able to participate in the kind of scramble to get whatever is falling from the sky,” she says. “What we’ve seen of the images of people receiving aid, it’s not a dignified way. It’s not a safe way for aid to be distributed.”

She adds that it is “shocking” Israel’s closest allies like the US have had to resort to them.

“It shows either that Israel is immovable or that these allies are unwilling to make demands or ask for the things that need to be done in order for aid to flow more freely into Gaza,” she says.

Facing mounting pressure, US President Joe Biden announced on Thursday the creation of a temporary port on Gaza’s Mediterranean coast to receive humanitarian aid by sea.

US officials hope it will scale up the humanitarian response but admitted it too could take weeks to plan and execute. The aid would still be subject to Israeli checks in Cyprus before coming to Gaza – raising concerns about delays and restrictions from the “dual use” list.

Sigrid Kaag, the UN humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, says she welcomes Washington’s initiatives but that “air and sea is not a substitute for land and nobody says otherwise”.

The Jordanian military said it has conducted 29 airdrops (Bel Trew)
The Jordanian military said it has conducted 29 airdrops (Bel Trew)

Mr Biden also said on Thursday that Israel agreed to reopen one of its land borders to north Gaza to allow aid in – something that the UN said it had been working on for weeks and is a key demand from aid organisations.

However, UN officials who The Independent has been speaking to say they do not know “when or if” it would fully open. COGAT did not reply to a request for comment from The Independent about timings either.

Much is pinned on an immediate temporary ceasefire and hostage exchange deal that would allow the unobstructed delivery of aid. But hopes have been dimmed by recent talks in Cairo ending with no breakthrough.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who has blamed Hamas for the stalled talks – vowed in a fiery Thursday speech that his army would continue its ground assault.

“We must stand together against the attempts to stop the war,” he said.

In Jordan, workers in packed JHCO warehouses hope that they can find a way to deliver the aid including medical supplies, blankets, tents, food cans, hygiene items and baby milk. They are preparing for another aid drop and also trucks, they hope will be allowed in Gaza soon.

Dr Shebli says people in Gaza are now afraid not only to die in the fighting but because of a lack of food, water and medicines. All supplies that they could provide.

“We are talking about starvation of children, the most difficult things you see when you see children die from starvation," he says, as the calls come in with requests for help. “We have warehouses packed full of food, we need to help these people.”