Global war crimes debate descends on this key gateway into Gaza

Global war crimes debate descends on this key gateway into Gaza

KEREM SHALOM, Israel — The family of Eitan Mor, held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for more than 240 days, marked his 24th birthday by protesting the delivery of humanitarian aid for Palestinians suffering amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

“If the Arabs get the humanitarian aid, we want our son to get [aid],” Tzvika Mor, Eitan’s father, said to reporters at the Kerem Shalom crossing last week, holding a symbolic box of goods for his son.

Tzvika was joined by about two dozen members of his community, Kiryat Arba, representing a hardline segment of Israeli society that wants the Israeli government to focus all efforts on the military campaign, regardless of blowback from international courts warning of genocide and accusing Israeli leaders of war crimes.

“We should not talk to the terrorists, we have to kill them, we have to crush Hamas,” Mor said.

A number of Israeli politicians have called for — and implemented for short stretches — policies to cut off the delivery of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, especially in the first fraught weeks following Hamas’s shocking Oct. 7 terrorist attack against Israel. Eitan Mor was among more than 250 people taken hostage by Hamas, and is one of 124 yet to be released.

Far-right Israeli protesters have sought to block aid trucks from reaching Israeli checkpoints, presenting just one of many challenges complicating aid delivery to the estimated two million Palestinians under siege amid Israel’s campaign to rout Hamas.

The actions and rhetoric of Israeli officials at key gateways into Gaza feed into allegations that they are using starvation as a weapon of war, along with other violations against international humanitarian law.

Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, charged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant with war crimes, citing evidence that “Israel has intentionally and systematically deprived the civilian population in all parts of Gaza of objects indispensable to human survival.”

Israel rejects these claims, and says that it is committed to upholding its obligations under international law and facilitating the aid moving into the Gaza Strip.

But there is no disputing that distribution on the Palestinian side is an enormous challenge. International NGOs are asking for the Israelis to provide safe and predictable access routes for the movement of aid, and allow for the safe movement of humanitarian workers in and out of Gaza. The U.N. estimates that 254 aid workers have been killed so far in the war.

And the Kerem Shalom crossing has moved to the center of the global debate, as one of the few land crossings that allows for large shipments of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and the movement of humanitarian workers.

<sup>Tzvika Mor, the father of Eitan Mor, held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for nearly 240 days, speaks to reporters at the Kerem Shalom border cross on May 30, 2024. (Laura Kelly)</sup>
Tzvika Mor, the father of Eitan Mor, held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for nearly 240 days, speaks to reporters at the Kerem Shalom border cross on May 30, 2024. (Laura Kelly)

Other land crossings between Israel and Gaza have been shut down over security reasons or damage inflicted by Hamas amid the Oct. 7 attack. Two additional crossings, Erez and Erez West, allow for aid transfers from Israel to Gaza.

Earlier this month Israel seized Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt, setting off a diplomatic standoff with Cairo that held back aid for weeks. Under pressure from President Biden, Egypt last week agreed to start sending aid trucks through Kerem Shalom. Rafah remains closed.

More than 1,800 trucks moved through Kerem Shalom between May 26 and 30, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The four main categories of aid going into Gaza are food, water, shelter items and medicine.

The approximate 360 trucks of aid per day is supplemented by air drops of aid largely provided by the Jordanian air force. Approximately 102 airdrops have taken place over nearly eight months of war with about 9,200 aid packages.

President Biden has said he wants to increase the number of aid trucks entering Gaza to 600 per day, as part of a wide-ranging ceasefire deal with Hamas that would require the release of Israeli hostages. A cessation of fighting would also allow for the safe and easy movement of humanitarian workers to distribute aid. Hamas has rejected Biden’s proposal for a ceasefire, saying it fails to guarantee an end to the war.

Still, the Israeli government argues that the amount of aid entering and present in Gaza is sufficient to meet the needs of the population and trades blame with aid groups over the overarching challenges of distribution.

Israel’s position stands in stark contrast to the dire warning of famine and images of starvation coming out of Gaza.

“The entire population of Gaza – around 2.2 million people – is facing acute food insecurity, meaning they require food assistance, and the threat of famine is looming,” Dan Dieckhaus, response director for the USAID, told reporters in a briefing in mid-May.

A controversial, American-built floating pier operated for about a week in May before it was damaged by rough seas and made it inoperable. While about 1,000 metric tons of aid was delivered through the pier, it took about four days to be distributed out into Gaza — and barely made a dent in the need for aid, according to humanitarian groups.

“From the beginning humanitarians have said ‘land crossings, land crossings, land crossings,’” said Jason Knapp, country representative for Catholic Relief Services in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

“I don’t think anyone had their head wrapped around how challenging, from a logistical standpoint, the pier would be.”

OCHA, the U.N. agency for humanitarian affairs, has cited fuel shortages in Gaza as hampering efforts of distribution, along with the limited number of entry points into Gaza and “sub-optimal” operating hours at crossings and checkpoints.

OCHA said in a summary of activities between May 13-19 that the limited number of trucks allowed access is making food distribution particularly dire in the north, where food is reaching only 36,000 people and “a limited number of partners” are able to provide assistance.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power said last week that humanitarian workers are reporting that “conditions are worse now than ever before. Israeli military operations and closed crossings are making it extremely difficult to distribute aid,” in a post on the social media site X.

Shimon Friedman, the International Spokesperson for COGAT, the Israel Defense Forces coordinating body for civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, said that more than 85 percent of movements coordinated between COGAT and aid groups to travel throughout Gaza are approved.

“There are different reasons why things will be denied, one of them is for the security of the convoy itself. As much as we can, we want to approve these coordinations,” he told The Hill during a tour of the Kerem Shalom crossing last week.

Aid groups have also pointed to challenges of getting their workers into and out of the strip. Kerem Shalom is the only crossing coordinating the movement of people. It’s only accessible by private car or taxi, and roughly two hours from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem without traffic.

<sup>A sign stands at the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza on Thursday, May 30. (Laura Kelly) </sup>
A sign stands at the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza on Thursday, May 30. (Laura Kelly)

The crossing looks like a vast parking lot, with 30-foot concrete blast walls squaring off areas and creating a maze of routes for vehicles.

A few loitering trucks sat out in the open sun on the day The Hill visited last week, with temperatures in the Spring months reaching almost 90 degrees fahrenheit. Boxes of black and green tea, sponsored by the U.S.-based aid group World Central Kitchen, bears a warning that boxes should be kept “in a dry place, away from sunlight.”

Other goods on trucks included flour provided by the World Food Program. Metal buckets for laundry, blankets, and woven mats were provided by IOM UN Migration, the Norwegian Refugees Council and European Union Humanitarian aid.

A truck with aid provided by UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees from Israel’s 1948 war of independence, also waited to enter Gaza.

“We’ve taken many steps to improve our logistical capabilities so that we can inspect the aid and deliver it into the Gaza Strip, Unfortunately the international organizations haven’t taken similar steps to increase their distribution capabilities,” Friedman said.

“Distribution has been an issue since the beginning of the war.”

The trucks that pass through Kerem Shalom are unloaded on the Gazan side, which can be seen from across the border. It’s a wide stretch of flat concrete with shade provided by open-sided shelters. Goods are also placed in the open sun.

Ami Shaked, manager of the Kerem Shalom Crossing, closely watches the offloading and buildup of goods across the border with a live camera feed — zooming in on boxes’ logos to see which aid organizations have yet to pick up their materials.

“The picture from Gaza, you can see more than 800 trucks on the ground, they didn’t come yet to take them,” he said, referring to both the pick-up of commercial goods for Palestinian markets, and humanitarian aid distributed by international non-governmental organizations.

“The goods are on the ground, more than weeks, and they didn’t supply to the Palestinian side.”

Shaked said there are about 200 workers on the Israeli side, and 100 workers on the Palestinian side. Work is sometimes suspended as the most intense fighting between Israel and Hamas currently centers around Rafah, which neighbors Kerem Shalom.

Israeli military armaments are staged near the Kerem Shalom crossing as the IDF escalates its operations in Rafah, described as the last holdout of four Hamas battalions. That has made the crossing a target for Hamas munitions.

“In this zone of war, especially in the last two weeks, it became harder than before,” Shaked said, describing near-daily air raid alarms and rocket attacks. On Sunday, Hamas fired eight rockets from Rafah that triggered air raid sirens at least 75 miles away in Tel Aviv.

“We are daily under launching of rockets, sometimes it’s to this area, sometimes it’s above this area. But until you don’t see the rockets go far away from you, you don’t know what will happen,” Shaked said.

“We have a special procedure for this, we usually stop the work for 15 minutes and after this we continue. But don’t try to do it at home. It’s complicated.”

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