‘Major policy failure’: US mulls plan to airdrop aid to Gaza after Israel blocks it on the ground

‘Major policy failure’: US mulls plan to airdrop aid to Gaza after Israel blocks it on the ground

The White House is said to be considering airdropping aid from US military planes into Gaza amid dire warnings of famine in the territory and following the failure of US officials to convince Israel to allow sufficient aid deliveries on the ground.

The move follows months of warnings from aid groups that Israel’s war in Gaza is causing a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale that would be impossible to contain.

Jeremy Konyndyk, who led USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance during the Obama administration and oversaw humanitarian air drops to Nepal, the Philippines and Iraq, described the potential US plan to drop aid by air as a “major policy failure” on the part of the Biden administration.

“When the US government has to use tactics that it otherwise used to circumvent the Soviets and Berlin and circumvent Isis in Syria and Iraq, that should prompt some really hard questions about the state of US policy,” he told The Independent.

The United Nations warned this week that some 576,000 people, or one quarter of Gaza’s population, are “one step away from famine.” It has also accused Israel of “systematically” blocking aid deliveries into Gaza and of opening fire on convoys that do make it through.

The US has repeatedly said it has been working behind the scenes to convince Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, but the amount of aid that has reached Gazans dropped by half in February compared to the previous month.

The dire conditions on the ground in Gaza were drawn into sharp relief on Wednesday when more than 100 Palestinians were killed after Israeli forces opened fire on a crowd that was scrambling to collect aid from food trucks near Gaza City. The Israeli army said its forces had “fired at those who posed a threat” after some civilians rushed towards the trucks.

Mr Konyndyk, who is now president of Refugees International, told The Independent that airdrops are “the most expensive and least effective way to get aid to a population. We almost never did it because it is such an in extremis tool.”

He referenced his experience managing US airdrops to Yazidi civilians who were fleeing attacks from Isis fighters on the top of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014. At the same time it was dropping aid, the US was also carrying out airstrikes against Isis fighters who were besieging the Yazidis.

“We coordinated US military aid airdrops to that population while they were sheltering on the mountain. We had to do that because they were being besieged by a terrorist group. So when we see this happening in a place that is under the military control of an ally of the United States, it’s just a shocking thing to see,” he said.

“Israeli military tactics here are functionally the equivalent of an earthquake in Nepal in terms of the impact they're having on humanitarian access. That's a policy choice,” he said. “And it's totally inexcusable that governments, including potentially the US government, are resorting to airdrops because Israel won't allow consistent humanitarian access and won't open the border crossings.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The US has said that it is engaged in diplomacy with Israeli officials to urge them to allow greater humanitarian access to Gaza. In an interview with the New Yorker published on Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US has had “very frank and very forthright” discussions with Israeli officials “in private.”

“We have been able to get humanitarian assistance in Gaza since the beginning of the conflict. There have been times when it’s been easier than others. Some of that’s based on the operational environment. We’re working hard with the Israelis to keep that aid flowing and to hopefully increase that level of aid. I think I’d leave it there,” Mr Kirby said.

“I think they understand our concerns. Even though there needs to be more aid, even though there needs to be fewer civilian casualties, the Israelis have, in many ways, been receptive to our messages,” he added.

Israel’s war in Gaza was launched in response to a Hamas attack that killed 1,200 people. Hamas and other militants are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of about 30 more, after releasing most of the other captives during a November truce. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by the war, including some 13,000 children, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Many more Palestinians are thought to be buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

In recent weeks, the security situation inside Gaza has made aid deliveries even more perilous. The World Food Program suspended what it described as “life-saving” aid deliveries into northern Gaza on 20 February over safety concerns. The agency said in a statement that the decision had “not been taken lightly,” but added that the pause would continue “until conditions are in place that allow for safe distributions.”

“Gaza is hanging by a thread and WFP must be enabled to reverse the path towards famine for thousands of desperately hungry people,” the agency said.

The UN said that 80 per cent of aid deliveries destined for northern Gaza were blocked by the Israeli army in January. Gaza’s health ministry said on Wednesday that six children have died from dehydration and malnutrition in recent days.

Mr Konyndyk, the former Obama administration official, now believes it may be too late to prevent a famine.

”Just based on the other circumstances where I've worked on famine relief operations, it's very hard for me to see how you could avert famine now,” he said. “With the humanitarian footprint that currently exists, you would need a total change. You would need complete access through the territory. You would need a level of security that is hard to envision without a ceasefire.”

That, he added, is unlikely to come without serious pressure on Israel from the Biden administration. Thus far, it is unclear if there is any event that would cause Biden to exert that pressure.

“I used to think there was a line or hope there was a line, and I have a harder time discerning what that line would be at this point,” Mr Konyndyk said. “I would hope that famine would be the line, it should be.”