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The Challenges of Providing Humanitarian Aid to Gaza

6 November, 2023

By Oliver Hegglin – Junior Fellow

October 7, 2023 has become the deadliest day in Israeli history. Official numbers indicate some 1,400 people were killed in the “Al-Aqsa Flood” by the terrorist group Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, “Islamic Resistance Movement”), an attack the group said it is determined to repeat. This resulted in Israel declaring war against Hamas, and launching a punishing response against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. By the end of October, the Gaza Health Ministry indicated the number of dead in the territory had passed 7,000.

Gaza’s helplessness, blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007, and run by Hamas since 2006, following Israeli disengagement in 2005, whose founding charter calls for Jihad, has resulted in the international community and relief organizations calling for a ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, Gaza’s 2.2 million inhabitants have already been heavily reliant on foreign aid, due to the blockade and a terror group which has been hostile towards Israel since coming to power, and which has a history of severely misusing aid for violence.

Aid since 2007

The Israel-Egypt blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2007, encompasses the entire territory of 360km square, almost 13 km along Egypt, and 60km along Israel. Dubbed the “Gaza Fence”, this barrier consists of fencing, an underground barrier, barbed wire, watch-towers and “intrusion detection equipment”, making the only access into and out of Gaza the Israeli Erez Crossing and the Egyptian Rafah crossing. On the Mediterranean Sea, fishing zones of 11km in the north and 28km in the south are permitted.

The blockade has caused poverty and high unemployment, resulting in dependence on aid for over 80% of the population. According to the UN, about 80% of youths are unemployed and in 2022 alone, some $510 million were needed to provide water, food, sanitation, and health services to 1.6 million people. Foreign aid generally goes into Gaza through the Palestinian Authority (PA) or UN agencies. From some countries, such as Qatar, Israel allows financial aid to pass directly to Gaza through Hamas. According to the UN, about 450 aid trucks passed through Rafah daily.

To help develop the Strip, the EU spent almost €100 million to build water pipelines to transport water and sewage from 2015 to 2022. Cumulatively, some 50km have been built. More had been planned for next year before October 7, as part of a nearly €1.2 billion support program for Gaza and the West Bank. Israel too is a source of water and electricity for Gaza, with over a quarter of the electricity coming from Israel for free during peace-times, and just under ten per cent of water coming from an Israeli-state owned firm, though at a price.

In addition, Israel has issued work permits to Gazans after the eleven day war in May 2021, in an effort to stabilize Gaza through a “combined policy” of military deterrence and economic development. These Palestinians entered Israel through the Erez border crossing, which finished construction just months prior to Hamas coming to power in Gaza in 2006 and has the capacity to facilitate 45,000 individuals per day. By mid-2021, 7,000 Gazans had permits to work or trade in Israel. By September 2021 the quota was raised to 12,000 and just a month later to 20,000. Some 15,000 were effectively issued by 2022 with the government pledging to raise the quota to 30,000 permits. While a fraction of the pre-2007 number, when about 120,000 Gazans worked in Israel, work-permits served as a form of economic aid to Gazans, a policy which has certainly changed following October 7.

Misuse of Aid

While the humanitarian situation in Gaza is impacted by the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, the primary challenge in providing humanitarian aid to Gaza is the severe misuse of resources and extremely poor governance by Hamas. The terror group is accused of having no transparency and repressing media, activism and non-governmental organizations. It controls every aspect of governance in Gaza and aid provided in the past has been weaponized in line with Hamas’ purpose of eliminating the State of Israel rather than providing for its citizenry. It has not used aid funds previously supplied to restore infrastructure following previous conflicts. This became explicitly clear in the days and weeks following October 7 when evidence of the misuse of humanitarian aid came to light and Hamas admitting it did not find itself responsible for protecting civilians.

Medical Equipment, Fuel and Finance

UNICEF medical kits, for instance, were found to be used by Hamas on October 7. They also stole fuel and medical equipment intended for refugees from the UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency), the UN’s agency that supports relief for Palestinians, headquarters in Gaza City in the weeks following. Fuel, necessary for generators and to pump water, has also been horded by Hamas over an unknown number of years, with the organization now allegedly having between half a million and a million liters. Meanwhile, the “lack” of fuel has forced all water desalination and treatment plants to shut down.

It is also not just fuel that Hamas has been stockpiling, but funds as well, with the Israeli foreign ministry claiming the group has an annual turnover of over one billion dollars, with the main funding sources being taxes, fees, and financial aid, primarily from Iran and Qatar, where Hamas senior leaders are believed to reside in luxury. The annual military budget is estimated to be between $100 million and $350 million. Consequently, there are demands that funds from Qatar are first channeled through the legitimate PA, rather than going straight to Hamas, something the group opposes.

Water Pipes

The EU has spent millions of Euros to build pipelines for water and sewage. To an unknown degree, pipes have been dug up and re-purposed into rockets, which continue to be fired indiscriminately into Israel. Hamas’ knowledge in building home-made rockets using commercially available and stolen material, is a feat that has been demonstrated before, including in the May 2021 war.

The October 7 attack has now led the EU to deliberate how best to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza without resources falling into the hands of Hamas. This is at best extremely difficult given Hamas’ complete control of Gaza, the simple answer is that it may not be possible at all. Several EU countries have frozen support to Gaza given the fear their aid would be used for violence, while others fear doing so punishes civilians. Though the EU claims no resources have been “handed over to Hamas”, this is not something it can guarantee. In a similar vein, the US has pledged aid to Gaza “in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal”, though the US is unlikely to be able to ensure this.

Building Materials

While water pipes were being dug up, building material was being used to build the “Gaza Metro”, an extensive network of tunnels that Hamas claims stretches 500km. The existence of this tunnel system is no secret, and both Israel and Egypt restrict the import of “dual-use” goods, which include pipes, cement and iron. With Israeli permission, Egypt and Qatar have previously supplied both fuel and building materials to Gaza and already in 2014, the UN was under pressure to establish a mechanism to supervise the entry of building materials to ensure their legitimate use. Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have accused Hamas of diverting financial aid and “thousands of tons” of cement into building tunnels. Notably, Hamas has not built shelters for civilians.

It is widely known that Hamas has built their network underneath civilian infrastructure. For example, in 2021, a UNRWA investigation revealed a “cavity and a possible tunnel” underneath a school, and a year later it announced it had identified a “man-made cavity underneath” another school. Hamas goes as far as admitting it builds tunnels under civilian infrastructure. The IDF has also released intercepted audio which alleges Hamas members and Gazans admit to the headquarters of Hamas’ armed wing, the Al-Qassam brigade, being located under the Shifa hospital, where media reports over 50,000 Gazans have taken refuge. This location, and others, likely has electricity thanks to stockpiled fuel, making it likely Hamas is syphoning resources from the hospital itself. The IDF claims “hundreds of terrorists” hid in complexes beneath Shifa and other hospitals after October 7.


Misuse of aid includes the education system. One of the October 7 attackers was found to have a UNRWA diploma in metal works, indicating that former UNRWA students are joining the Al-Qassam brigade. While the radicalization of this individual may have taken place post-graduation, there is widespread accusation that UNRWA is complicit in indoctrination of Gaza’s youth; 321,000 students in 370 schools. The PA, for example, is the exclusive supplier of books, which are accused of containing antisemitic and anti-Israeli content. The funding for the publishing of these books comes partly from Western donors. UNRWA teachers too, are accused of calling for the “murder of Jews”, and using content that “glorify terrorism” and “encourage martyrdom”. The UN has been confronted with such accusations, which point out that UNRWA has allegedly failed to fire the teachers inciting and preaching “racism, hatred and violence”. UNRWA claims to have pledged to remove such content and adopt a “zero-tolerance policy”.

Aid during the 2023 Israel-Gaza War

While Gazans have lived under Hamas’ oppression for nearly two decades, their hardship worsened upon Israel’s response to October 7. For the first few weeks following that day, no aid could enter the Strip. Humanitarian aid piled up on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing amid international organizations warning of water, food, and fuel scarcity. Egypt refuted claims it chose to keep the crossing closed, saying Israeli bombardment was to blame for the inability of aid to enter the Strip. At the same time, it reinforced its border with Gaza, having begun construction on a concrete border wall in 2020. Security concerns by Egypt meant it would not open its border to Gazan refugees, indicating it did not want a “permanent resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians”.

Over two hundred trucks, some 3,000 tons of supplies, waited for weeks, with more convoys under way and organizations flying in more supplies. International organizations such as the Red Crescent, Doctors without Borders, the World Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and others, waited with food, water, and medical equipment until late October, when the first convoys were able to enter Gaza via Rafah. A deal between Egypt and Israel, brokered by the UN on October 19, enabled this entry of aid, as an existing agreement between the two countries stipulates that Israel must approve supplies entering Gaza. Israel has stated it would not “thwart” supplies from entering, conditioned they do not go to Hamas, and asked the UN inspect trucks for weapons. Israel has indicated it would ease the access of humanitarian aid further, establishing a system to check for smuggled weapons and for goods in Gaza to only be distributed in a “humanitarian zone” around Khan Yunis in Southern Gaza by the UN. Israel has also agreed to allow 1,200 trucks to enter Gaza per day and accuses Hamas of only accepting 400. Israel is also believed to have linked humanitarian assistance to the release of the 230 people kidnapped by Hamas on October 7.

In mid-October, Israel ordered Gazans to evacuate northern Gaza and move south of the Wadi Gaza, having shut off the electricity, water and fuel supplies it had previously supplied to the Strip on October 12. It turned the flow of water back on in the south three days later following a call between the Israeli and American leaders, likely to incentivize movement. The presumed reason then, and confirmed now, is an IDF ground-operation targeting Hamas. Yet back then the UN commented on the near impossibility of moving a million people without “devastating humanitarian consequences”.

Egypt, having taken a leading role in the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza, has opened its airport in Al-Arish in north Sinai, some 50km from Gaza, to international partners. Supplies stockpiled here would be transported to Rafah. Planes from the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, and France, have flown in food, medical equipment, and other supplies. While there is only one way to get humanitarian aid into Gaza, seemingly a challenge, Egypt’s existing infrastructure permits for an efficient delivery into the Strip through a secure corridor. Previously, UNRWA had flown in aid into Israel but as of October 16 it was no longer permitted to do so.

While some countries and international organizations pledged physical aid, others did so in the form of funding. On October 13, the UN issued a Flash Appeal for $295 million for 80 international and domestic humanitarian organizations across the Palestinian Territories. The EU has tripled humanitarian aid to Gaza to €75 million and the USA has pledged $100 million in humanitarian assistance. Other countries, such as Jordan and Switzerland, have also pledged funds to international organizations.

Ending the Cycle of Violence

Since 2007, the cycle has been repeated time and time again; Hamas fires rockets into Israel and the IDF responds with air strikes. While Israel takes measures to warn civilians and reduce collateral damage, Hamas hides behind civilians. Now with Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza, there is an opportunity to end the cycle of violence by destroying Hamas’ military capabilities.

Hamas enjoys support among Palestinian population, promoting its ideology of hate and violence towards Israel. The international community has been racing in October, with more efforts planned in November, to franticly find a way to end the war and protect civilians from continued collateral damage following Hamas’ October 7 attack and the Israeli response.

While Hamas continues to serve as the biggest challenge in providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, Israel has been forced into balancing its humanitarian obligations and military objective of defeating Hamas, which has the sole purpose of eliminating the state of Israel and establishing a world-wide caliphate.

As long as Hamas, with its hateful ideology and genocidal goals, continues to control Gaza, there will be little scope for dialogue and long term peace in the region. As such, may be that the current conflict presents a opportunity to changing the long-term dynamic. But even if Israel eventually succeeds in rooting out the organization and the international community is able to make sustainable post-conflict arrangements for the territory’s governance and reconstruction, this does nothing to mitigate the immediate human security challenges. Even in the midst of conflict, it is vital that basic humanitarian needs are facilitated.

Image: Egypt-Gaza border crossing (Source: Gigi Ibrahim via CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.