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Gaza airdrops might not be necessary if Israel faced more pressure on aid

<span>Aid packages dropped over Gaza City by the Jordanian air force on Friday.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
Aid packages dropped over Gaza City by the Jordanian air force on Friday.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Half an hour before Rishi Sunak launched his assault on British extremism, the foreign secretary, David Cameron issued his own strong statement.

Cameron said the killings of more than 100 Palestinians in Gaza as crowds gathered around aid trucks on Thursday were horrific and required an investigation and accountability. He said the halving of the number of aid trucks entering Gaza in the past month was “completely unacceptable” and that Israel had an “obligation” to ensure significantly more humanitarian aid reached the territory.

He then listed a “series of bottlenecks” and bureaucratic obstacles to the delivery of aid, many that he first identified when he gave evidence to the foreign affairs select committee on 9 January.

Since then, he and his officials have complained ad nauseam to Israeli officials about those bottlenecks, but judging by the killings, and the desperation in northern Gaza revealed on Thursday, it has had little effect.

But it was significant that Cameron made no mention of airdrops, the solution the White House has latched upon. Instead, he spoke about opening more land crossings, the demand of UN aid agencies.

That does not mean the British government is altogether opposed to airdrops. The UK, in conjunction with the king of Jordan, dropped four tonnes of supplies to the Tal al-Hawa hospital in Gaza City on 21 February, but UK officials privately consider this to be a last resort, and some regard it as performative. It was hardly encouraging that some of the Jordanian airdrops were carried by parachute into the sea.

One reason is that the maths and finances of using planes to drop aid at random make little sense when other options would be available if the west were only willing to expend more diplomatic capital.

One C-130 Hercules can carry the approximate equivalent of a lorry-load of aid. Gaza needs an estimated 500 lorries of aid a day at minimum. That means Gaza’s airspace is going to be thick with large transport planes. Delivery by air costs seven times as much as by road.

Melanie Ward, the chief executive of Medical Aid for Palestinians, said: “Instead of dropping packages from the sky – some of which end up in the sea or outside of Gaza and which the most vulnerable cannot reach in any case – the US, the UK and others should ensure that Israel immediately opens all crossings into Gaza for aid and aid workers to assist those in need. This includes the Karni and Erez crossings, which give direct access to the north of Gaza. Only safe and unfettered access for aid and aid workers, the lifting of the siege and an immediate ceasefire can end starvation in Gaza.”

The distribution of aid once it hits the ground is also a concern of the UN Relief and Works Agency. Civil order is breaking down in northern Gaza and it is just as likely that Hamas will end up being the distributor and chief consumer of the aid, thereby reinforcing its authority.

Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, saw a political message in the White House decision. He said: “When the US, the world’s greatest military power and the greatest ally of Israel, is reduced to operating air aid drops, it is a sign of America’s ineffectiveness.

“Airdrops are inefficient and dangerous as everyone knows, but the US is doing this because it cannot persuade Israel to allow aid into Gaza by land and in trucks. It is the ultimate sign of weakness and shows the US is unwilling to stand up to Israel.”

David Miliband, the former Labour foreign secretary and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said airdrops were a measure of desperation.

He said: “The simple truth is that we wouldn’t need airdrops if the crossings were properly open, there were more crossing points, the bureaucracy was reduced and above all that the humanitarian case for a ceasefire was recognised. This is where all diplomacy must be urgently focused”.

But airdrops are not unprecedented. The first drop of emergency humanitarian relief under the UN system happened in August 1973. The World Food Programme-led operation saw more than 30 cargo aircraft from 12 national forces drop assistance in Africa’s western Sahel, where six years of drought had taken their toll on people in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso (then called Upper Volta). The relief effort continued for three years.

The UN says: “Designated drop-zones need to be open areas, ideally flat and clearly visible from the air. Depending on the plane’s altitude, they can be as small as a football pitch or as large as 1,000 x 1,500 metres.”

Related: US aircraft carry out airdrops of aid to Gaza with 38,000 meals

Airdrops have also been used sparingly in conflict zones such as Syria, but the UN said overall they required the consent of President Assad. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, will allow airdrops, but given his dependence on America, could he be persuaded to let more lorries into Gaza overland? Basic levers are eminently available. It might only take Washington to state that depriving Palestinians of aid as Israel has done is a breach of international humanitarian law and the atmosphere might change.

The US says it understands the inherent risks airdrops entail. The US national security spokesperson, John Kirby, said: “There are few military operations that are more complicated than humanitarian assistance airdrops. This is a tough military mission to do because so many parameters have to be exactly right.

“That said, I think we will learn from the first airdrops and this will be part of a sustained effort. This will not be one and done. With each one we will get better. It is very difficult, it is extremely difficult, to do airdrops in such a densely populated area as Gaza. You have to get as close as possible to the people in need but not in any way that it puts them in any danger. We fully expect the third and fourth and fifth one will not look like the first and second one. We will try to learn and improve.”

Few sentences speak more volumes about the self-imposed moral universe the west has chosen to inhabit.