Whirlwind week in Rafah fuels disappointment, desperation: Q&A with UNRWA head

In the Gaza Strip, fuel is one of the most valuable commodities, essential to powering everything from generators for hospitals, sanitation services, and trucks to deliver critical humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians living in desperate conditions.

Scott Anderson, based in Rafah as the senior deputy director of affairs for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), took some solace Friday with the delivery of 157,000 liters of fuel for the operations of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

“That’ll buy us a couple of days, if we ration tanks,” he said in a video call with The Hill from Gaza on Friday.

Sitting on the border with Egypt, the tiny, southern Gaza city is the center of the world’s attention. The seizure by Israel of the Rafah border crossing earlier this week — a main artery for humanitarian aid delivery and, Israel alleges, weapons for Hamas — has prompted international alarm.

“The Rafah passenger terminal on the Gazan side, the staff that were there left when the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] came in, so there’s nobody to run the terminal. So Rafah remains closed, which is a little problematic,” Anderson said.

“Normally what comes through Rafah for us is fuel and then some commercial sector trucks, and Rafah has been closed.”

While President Biden has threatened to withhold more offensive weapons for Israel if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greenlights a major offensive operation into Rafah, aid groups are pushing for international powers to prioritize delivery of humanitarian assistance in the face of famine conditions.

“All the decisions have a real impact on people here on the ground, on innocent civilians, especially the children,” Anderson said. “And what we’re here to do is make sure those people are taking care of innocent civilians, children. And I just wish people would give a little more thought to what consequences actions have for those people on the ground.”

Anderson spoke to The Hill at the end of a chaotic week that saw the pendulum swing between hopes for a cease-fire — after Hamas indicated it had accepted a deal for one — to the urgent warnings to evacuate a conflict zone after Israel said Hamas’s terms were unacceptable.

The conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Hill: How essential is the fuel delivery you received on Friday to operations?

Anderson: It’s very positive that we can now keep the hospital generators running and some other things, as well as our logistics operation.

Everything we do starts with fuel, because there’s no power plants running — the one power plant in Gaza is not running. So all the hospitals are relying on generators, which rely on fuel; the water networks, water generation, sewage, solid waste; and then our distribution of food and nonfood items like tents and hygiene kits, it all starts with fuel. And we were functionally out, until we got the quantity in today, which will keep us going for a little bit. But we need to get our normal, sustainable pipeline reinvigorated and restarted.

The Hill: Can you describe what it was like in Rafah this week, amid high hopes and then disappointment over cease-fire talks, and then Israel issuing evacuation orders, taking over the crossing and bombing areas of eastern Rafah? 

Anderson: It’s been a whirlwind of a week, I would say. So Sunday started with [Hamas] mortar attacks going into Kerem Shalom [crossing with Israel], which closed down the crossing early. And then there was literally people in the streets celebrating, because they heard Hamas had agreed to terms. And then it wasn’t the terms Israel agreed to, and then the next evacuation orders came, and here we go.

People were depressed; they were despondent. They thought this was finally the beginning of the end for them and they can hopefully go home and rebuild. And then it was kind of taken right out from under them. So it’s been both for the civilian population but also the U.N. staff and International nongovernmental organization staff that are local here. It’s been a hard week, for them to try to process all this and remain committed, which they have. All the commendations to them for the stellar behavior and stellar performance, but it’s — I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to think it’s over and then be worried for your family all day, and while you try to help your fellow citizens survive through this conflict.

The Hill: The Israeli government issued evacuation orders for civilians in Rafah earlier this week and launched airstrikes in the eastern part of the city. What was the experience like on the ground? 

Anderson: The evacuation orders that the IDF issued would have impacted about 100,000 people directly, and then if you’re in a neighborhood right next to that one, most likely people are going to also leave.

What we’ve seen is much wider displacement and movement of the population. I’m in a neighborhood called Tel al-Sultan, and from where the evacuation orders were issued, it’s 7 kilometers away, but we’ve seen people moving here.

Things are pretty bad. We’re seeing a lot of displacement. We’re tracking about 142,000 displaced so far, with more, I think, to come the next few days. We haven’t been able to get aid in since Sunday.

The Hill: What is the food aid you’re distributing? 

Anderson: We give flour, it’s very much a staple of the food basket here in Gaza. And then it ranges a little bit — lentils, rice, canned lunch meat, oil, sugar, salt, that kind of stuff, just sort of staple items. If the commercial sector was working properly, it would supplement the diet with fresh fruit and vegetables that they can buy in the market. But the commercial sectors have stopped working. And we also don’t have any cash. So it’s a bit of a problem. Even if people have money in their banks, they can’t access it in the form of cash.

The Hill: The U.S. said that it is almost finished with a pier to bring more aid into Gaza. How helpful is this?

Anderson: There used to be, in the past, seven crossings to get stuff into Gaza, dotted around. And they kept shrinking, to where we had Erez only for passengers, and Kerem Shalom was the main one, and then also Rafah for passengers and a very limited amount of cargo. So anything that will allow more aid to come into Gaza is welcome, as long as it’s additive and not a replacement for something else.

The Hill: Many of UNRWA’s international donors suspended funding in January amid Israeli allegations that UNRWA staff had participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. Some of these countries have reinstated funding following an independent U.N. review that suggested improving safeguards to protect the agency’s neutrality. How did the funding pause impact operations on the ground? 

Anderson: There’s two types of funding: There’s the macro-funding for UNRWA — it keeps all of the services live for schools [and operations] in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank. And then there’s a response to what’s happening here in Gaza.

The response for Gaza, I think, has been pretty robust. We’ve had pretty good funding. Following our commissioner general separating the 12 staff [accused by Israel of participating in the Oct. 7 attack] and then the Office of Internal Oversight launching the investigation, we did see many of the donor countries resume funding. [The U.S. and U.K., among others, have not resumed funding].

We need that to buy the food, the medicine and other things to take care of people here. And I hope that as we move forward with implementing all the recommendations in the Colonna report [Catherine Colonna, former French foreign minister and head of the review group], that that will convince the U.S. that we’ve done enough and reinstate funding as well.

The Hill: What is the situation like for the UNRWA international staff — where do you stay and how is your level of supplies of food and necessities?

Anderson: We have what is like a common-premises guesthouse. It’s beachfront property — not the kind you normally think — but there’s a bunch of us who stay there and it’s not too bad.

We rotate in and out and we try to bring food in, but at the moment, no people are moving in and out. There’s no food coming in and we’re all like, everybody else getting low, we don’t have a magic store or supply. We’re as reliant on stuff coming in as everybody else. So hopefully this will get resolved soon before we reach the point that we start running out of food.

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