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Humanitarian Challenge in Gaza: It's Time to Feed the Elephant in the Room

Policy Paper


Recently, Hamas issued a proclamation stating it would execute anyone who distributes humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip without its permission, and forced the Israeli Defense Minister to clarify that preparations to connect the Gaza electricity network to Israel were solely for the operation of a desalination plant. These two events underscore Israel's humanitarian challenge in Gaza, which significantly impacts the war's outcome.


However, Israel's policy on this matter is characterized by tactical, reactive, passive, inconsistent, and short-term thinking. As a result, despite the aid flooding Gaza in recent months, Israel is underfire by the ineternational community due to this issue.


This document addresses the humanitarian trap Hamas has set for Israel, the international community's stance and the delegitimization of Israel it generates, analyzes the Israeli approach, and offers recommendations and directions for thought.

elephant in Gaza

Summary


Hamas is positioning the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as a key objective of its campaign to exert pressure on Israel and the international community. A potential 'silver bullet' for the humanitarian crisis could be the temporary opening of the border with Egypt for displaced Palestinians. However, the international community has not demanded this from Egypt, instead holding Israel responsible for resolving the humanitarian crisis. This situation presents a complex challenge for Israel: managing a war against a terrorist organization entrenched within a civilian population while addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of that population.


Images emerging from Gaza contribute to Israel's isolation and are used to level severe accusations against it, including false claims of genocide. Furthermore, Israel is engaged in a prolonged war that may be only at its beginning, making international political support as vital as air. Every war creates humanitarian challenges, and Israel is expected to face criticism in every scenario. Still, Israel's approach can significantly influence its strategic flexibility and international standing.


Israel embarked on this war without a structured understanding of the implications of achieving its defined goals on the Palestinian population, perceiving the conflict solely in terms of military objectives. Consequently, the IDF operates without clear directives from the political leadership and lacks a plan for the civilian aspects of control, including humanitarian aid. The actual Israeli approach results from a balance between reluctance to provide humanitarian aid to an enemy during wartime and fear of legal and political consequences if it fails to do so.


Israel's tactical and short-term thinking has led to a situation where, nine months into the war, it is reactive and passive, assisting international actors from a distance but barely contributing logistically. Israel aims to collapse Hamas militarily but does not present an alternative or a political agenda, nor does it manage the humanitarian space. Attempts to work with local Palestinian elements other than Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have failed miserably.


By acting without a clear political purpose, a vacuum is created in the humanitarian space, which Hamas exploits. Hamas' control over the humanitarian space and aid distribution is almost its sole visible attribute of sovereignty, maintaining its rule. Therefore, a prerequisite for the collapse of Hamas' civilian presence is pushing it out of the humanitarian space. Greater Israeli responsibility over the humanitarian space could change the perception among Hamas leaders that time is in their favor. If Israel does not act, Hamas will continue to control the area and is likely to strengthen following the reconstruction of Gaza as it has in the past.


It is in Israel's clear interest to prevent a humanitarian disaster and hunger in Gaza, which is also a moral imperative. Israel's challenge is not to explain the situation but to change it. Taking ownership of the humanitarian challenge in Gaza could serve as a strategic lever to achieve war objectives, namely the removal of Hamas from the civilian space and creating an international coalition for regime change in Gaza.


Under the current conditions, only Israel can provide immediate humanitarian relief by creating safe humanitarian corridors, establishing storage complexes within its territory to allow the entry of fresh food into Gaza, securing distribution points in humanitarian areas, supplying water and electricity to defined areas, and supporting the establishment of field hospitals by third parties. Israel can initiate the reconstruction of enclaves in Gaza that are 'clean' of Hamas, undermining Hamas' status and support. In the medium and long term, Israel will have to decide between re-establishing the Civil Administration in Gaza or working with elements connected to the Palestinian Authority.


About and Acknowledgements


During the writing process, we consulted five experts and professionals, including CEOs of Israeli and international humanitarian aid organizations, some of whom are still active in Gaza. For understandable reasons, they requested anonymity, but we deeply appreciate their contributions. We are also grateful to Lt. Col. (res.) Peter Lerner, who served in various roles in the IDF for about 25 years and was recruited as the IDF Spokesperson for international media during the war. He sharpened several important points in the review of an advanced draft of this document. Nevertheless, this document represents solely Atchalta’s position.


The Situation


Nine months into the war, more aid is entering Gaza, with Israel securing the American floating port, allowing third-country aid drops, and even allowing aid through its territory despite declaring it would no longer do so after October 7. However, not only does Israel not receive international recognition for its actions, but the humanitarian situation in Gaza has become a strategic obstacle to achieving Israel's war goals, turning it into a pariah state.


Characteristics of the Humanitarian Situation in Gaza:

  • Displacement Crisis: Approximately 1.7 million displaced Palestinians form the core of the humanitarian crisis, creating complex logistical and health challenges. Some have been evacuated to the safe zone in Mawasi, an area outside IDF control, but the infrastructure there is inadequate to accommodate a large population.


  • Resource Shortages: There is a severe shortage of food and water, putting the population at risk of malnutrition and dehydration.


  • Distribution and Logistics Challenges: Large quantities of food reach Gaza's gates but do not reach those in need due to:

    • Extensive looting of aid, a significant portion of which Hamas is responsible for.

    • Delivering supplies under fire poses a significant challenge for aid organizations.

    • Poor coordination between Israel, aid organizations, and local actors hampers efficient distribution.

    • Difficulties in establishing storage and distribution systems within Gaza:

    • Storage limitations prevent the entry of fresh food, restricting the supply mainly to dry goods.

  • Critical Infrastructure: Water and electricity supply is a major issue, requiring broad, fundamental infrastructure solutions beyond the capabilities of aid organizations.


  • Health System Damage: The damage to hospitals, some of which were used for Hamas military purposes, exacerbates the health crisis, threatens essential health and sanitation services, and exposes the local population to the risk of disease outbreaks.


Hamas’ Strategic Trap


The humanitarian crisis is a tactical war goal for Hamas,[1] not a byproduct:


  1. Hamas has built an extensive network of terrorist infrastructure deeply integrated into civilian areas, including hospitals, schools, and mosques. The carefully planned pogrom on October 7 was fully aware of the expected consequences of an Israeli invasion and widespread harm to the Palestinian population.

  2. By causing inevitable civilian casualties, Hamas aims to portray Israel as systematically violating the principle of proportionality in international law, failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and striking places and sites that should be protected.

  3. During the fighting, Hamas continues to exploit the humanitarian situation to its advantage. Its members loot a significant portion of the aid, worsening the distress and strengthening their control over the population.

  4. The designation of the safe zone in Mawasi played into Hamas' hands by reinforcing the narrative of forced displacement (considered a war crime), given the vast population sheltered there with inadequate infrastructure.

  5. The humanitarian crisis creates tension and discord between Israel and its American ally. American pressure and restrictions on arms due to the humanitarian situation encourage Hamas to continue the war and nullify its incentive for a hostage deal.

  6. Hamas leaders believe that given the humanitarian crisis, Israel will lose the international credit to continue the war and may be forced to cease fighting before achieving its objectives, potentially without a hostage deal.


The International Community's Political View on the Humanitarian Crisis


As the situation in Gaza worsens, international pressure on Israel to stop the fighting increases. Even Israel's friends hold it responsible for the humanitarian situation. The world does not accept Israel's explanations, and international pressure affects the IDF's operational plans, hindering Israel's ability to achieve its war objectives.


At the same time, the international community implicitly accepts the framing advanced by Egypt and Hamas that the displaced Palestinians are a political rather than a humanitarian problem. For months, over a million Palestinians were trapped in the Rafah area without proper infrastructure, with only a few being allowed to cross into Egypt. Hamas does not want Palestinians to leave because it benefits from the humanitarian crisis, and Egypt fears that refugees who reach it will never return to Gaza. The international community has not challenged Egypt's stance or demanded it or other countries to temporarily host refugees willing to leave. Such an agreement from Egypt could have been a true 'silver bullet,' providing immediate humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.


The Humanitarian Crisis and Delegitimization of Israel


The humanitarian crisis has a direct link to protests against Israel and the rise in antisemitism in the West. Images from Gaza significantly impact objective audiences worldwide. Hamas and its allies promote the narrative of a deliberate Israeli policy of starvation, healthcare collapse, infrastructure destruction (housing, water), and the economic ruin of Gaza.


The humanitarian situation in Gaza allows Hamas and its supporters to engage in simplistic and emotionally effective propaganda worldwide. Hamas conducts a sophisticated communication and diplomatic campaign, presenting biased and distorted data that amplifies international criticism of Israel. Hamas effectively utilizes a network of Islamist organizations in the West, leading waves of antisemitism and anti-Zionism higher than seen since World War II [2].


The humanitarian situation in Gaza strengthens the shallow binary view characterizing identity politics in the West of oppressors and oppressed. Thus, the critical discourse on Israel, initially focused on its actions and policies, quickly devolves into an attack on the legitimacy of the state's existence. The narrative of "colonialism" and "oppression" serves as the basis for anti-Israeli activism.


Hamas exploits this situation to spread the false accusation of genocide. Civil society organizations in the West, especially in academia, labor unions, and media, and states aligned with Hamas leverage the humanitarian situation politically, diplomatically, in the legal arena, and civically to harm Israel and completely demonize it. For instance, the lawsuit filed by South Africa at the International Criminal Court in The Hague against Israel, although it has not resulted in orders to stop the fighting as Hamas hoped, has become a humiliating spectacle severely damaging Israel’s international standing.


Public and Political Pressure in Israel Against Providing Humanitarian Aid to Palestinians


There is an undeniable popular belief in Israel, held by ministers, statesmen, and military officials, opposing the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza as long as Hamas remains in control. The reasons for opposing humanitarian aid are varied, including:

  • Hamas benefits from the aid, which helps it maintain its rule and achieve a psychological victory.

  • Involvement of the IDF in humanitarian aid could expose soldiers to risk.

  • Israel sends a negative message to its enemies that they will not be punished for attacking it.

  • Humanitarian aid undermines prisoner exchange deals because it diminishes Hamas' incentive for such a deal while it receives benefits without making concessions.

  • Some see the humanitarian crisis as a tactical goal, believing only such a crisis will lead to "a state of unwillingness and despair on the other side."[3]


This perspective favoring 'humanitarian stinginess' does not reflect the government’s position. However, expressions supporting it have bolstered the lawsuit against Israel in The Hague and the intention to issue international arrest warrants against the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Furthermore, at the war's outset, senior officials spoke of 'siege' and 'Nakba', reinforcing the perception that Israel is deliberately creating a humanitarian crisis out of revenge. These statements quickly exhausted international credit and sympathy for Israel after October 7. As this document concludes, this stance is also misguided regarding Israel's war goals and deep interests.


Israel's Actual Policy and Strategic Approach


Israel entered the war without a clear understanding regarding the implications of achieving its war goal of dismantling Hamas' governing and sovereign capabilities over the Palestinian population from a civil and humanitarian perspective. In practice, Israeli policy is an unintended result of a movement between two poles: a popular view opposing any aid to Gaza on one side, and fear of international law and constriction of Israel's military maneuvering space in Gaza on the other.


This tension is compounded by several thought patterns explaining Israel's 'paralysis' regarding the humanitarian space in Gaza:

  • The civil space and humanitarian aid are considered secondary issues compared to the military-security challenge, almost an afterthought of the fighting.

  • Israel sees itself as only partially responsible, if at all, for the humanitarian situation in Gaza after October 7, given Hamas' continued popularity there (the perception of 'no such thing as uninvolved civilians').

  • It does not take ownership of the humanitarian situation as it would imply legal responsibility for the situation in Gaza, resulting from a war it did not start.

  • Israel prefers that civil issues and humanitarian challenges be managed by international bodies. For instance, in a recent congressional hearing on UNRWA, an American expert testified that Israelis have always defended UNRWA.

  • The internal political situation disrupts Israel's ability to implement a coherent policy.

  • Israeli conduct reflects a hidden assumption that humanitarian action can function independently of military or political action. Thus, Israel works to dismantle Hamas militarily, does not present a political plan for 'the day after', and does not manage the humanitarian space.

  • Like other dimensions related to the war where Israel shows ineptitude, the humanitarian space is affected by tactical, short-term thinking and internal political power dynamics.


As a result, Israeli government actions are inconsistent, reactive, passive, and tactical. Chronic lack of inter-ministerial coordination does not contribute to greater consistency and coherence in government actions. The government does not show determination to implement even its own decisions, such as securing humanitarian aid trucks in Israel against disruption attempts by the ‘Tzav 9’ movement.


Israel assists from afar, focusing on coordinating between different entities, without 'getting its hands dirty' with logistics. Israel does not manage the civilian life space in Gaza, instead working to coordinate between the countries providing humanitarian aid and international aid organizations. Israel fails to coordinate aid with local Palestinian entities on a large scale because it is unwilling to deal with Hamas or bring the Palestinian Authority into Gaza. Attempts to deal with local regional leadership have failed due to Hamas' counteractions. Israel's coordination with international humanitarian aid organizations is tenuous and tactical. Partly, this is due to international organizations hostile to Israel and reluctant to coordinate with it.


Implications and Conclusions


Israel is abandoning the humanitarian space, thereby playing into Hamas' hands and allowing it to survive: control over the humanitarian space and aid distribution is almost the only visible marker of Hamas' sovereignty, maintaining its rule. Hamas has lost all its above-ground assets except those in the humanitarian space. Hamas is aware of Israel's reluctance to take 'ownership' of the humanitarian space and any action that could be interpreted as civilian control in Gaza. Therefore, while it hides in tunnels and does not provide regular services to the population, it insists on continuing to control aid distribution and even controls some aid organizations.


However, Israel's commitment to pushing Hamas out of the humanitarian space is a prerequisite for collapsing Hamas as a civilian entity, thus serving the war's objectives. Israeli ownership of the humanitarian space could change Hamas' perception that time is in its favor.


Ending the war will not end the humanitarian crisis, and Hamas is expected to strengthen following the reconstruction project in Gaza. Yotam Cohen notes in his article that Hamas and Hezbollah have turned past reconstruction processes in Gaza and Lebanon into rebuilding their power and status.[4]


To deal with a prolonged war, Israel needs international credit. Therefore, a change in Israeli policy regarding the humanitarian situation in Gaza is urgently necessary. Israel has entered a new era of continuous attrition warfare that Iran and Hamas call an 'open war,' which, from Hamas' perspective, could eventually devastate the Israeli economy, erode Israeli social cohesion, turn Israel into a pariah state, and create a rift between Israel and its primary protector, the United States. The international isolation of Israel, accelerated by the humanitarian situation, is disastrous for Israel.


Taking Ownership, Not Responsibility


As mentioned, Israel is reluctant to 'enter the humanitarian event' for fear that it would be an admission of responsibility for the situation there. However, the paradox is that the less Israel tries to deal with the humanitarian situation, the more the world perceives it as responsible and guilty.


Humanitarian action should complement military action and political purpose. However, when there is no clear political purpose, a vacuum is created in the humanitarian space, which Hamas exploits. Moreover, only a clear political purpose can create the potential for normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and its involvement and that of other regional countries in filling the humanitarian vacuum. Since we believe that Israel's 'non-humanitarian policy' complicates achieving the war objectives, the argument that Israeli involvement in humanitarian aid would endanger soldiers' lives must be weighed against the long-term implications of not achieving the war objectives.


Directions for Thought and Action


Preventing a humanitarian crisis should be a declared tactical goal of the war. The lack of infrastructure for distributing humanitarian aid is the primary reason for the 'humanitarian quagmire.' Israel did not declare a political goal that would allow deriving the humanitarian infrastructure structure from it, and it failed predictably to bypass the Palestinian Authority by appealing to businessmen and clans to manage the civilian aid system.


A change in humanitarian policy could facilitate the creation of an international humanitarian coalition, including regional countries, to create an alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza, distinguish between the population and Hamas rule, and prepare the infrastructure for the day after Hamas.


Only Israel can provide immediate and effective responses to Gaza's urgent humanitarian needs. Conversations with humanitarian aid officials suggest several actions Israel can take to significantly improve the situation while ensuring the safety of its forces:

  • Creating Safe Humanitarian Corridors: Israel can define agreed routes for aid workers and equipment movement, coordinate temporary ceasefires in humanitarian activity areas, and establish a real-time alert system for security changes.

  • Establishing Advanced Storage Facilities: Israel can build warehouses on its territory near the Gaza border, install refrigeration systems for fresh food storage, and create an efficient logistics system for transferring fresh food from the warehouses into Gaza.

  • Securing Distribution Points in Humanitarian Areas: Israel should identify and define safe areas (like Mawasi), establish and secure efficient food distribution points, and remotely monitor these points.

  • Creating Safe and Protected Zones Near the Border: These zones would allow direct humanitarian supply from Israel.

  • Providing Water and Electricity to Defined Areas: Temporarily extending water and electricity supply lines to humanitarian areas, or alternatively, installing mobile water purification systems, deploying generators or solar panels for electricity supply, and creating a temporary water and electricity distribution network.

  • Supporting the Establishment of Field Hospitals: Israel can logistically support the establishment of temporary medical facilities, provide essential medical equipment, and coordinate the transfer of international medical teams.


In the medium and long term, building a humanitarian infrastructure in Gaza that is not connected to Hamas leaves only two realistic options: full Israeli management of the civil-humanitarian space, meaning the establishment of a Civil Administration, or working with elements connected to the Palestinian Authority. Even working with the Palestinian Authority will not allow Israel to avoid being the security guarantor for aid until Hamas' power is significantly reduced. A renewed Palestinian Authority might be the long-term solution.


Rebuilding parts of Gaza from which Hamas has been eradicated and creating a civil alternative that also provides humanitarian services will undermine Hamas' status and might be a prerequisite for achieving the war objectives. Reconstructing parts of Gaza even before Hamas is eradicated and with regional countries' participation will undermine Hamas' ethos and might be etched in its memory as a war loss.


Alongside all these steps, there is no obstacle and, in our opinion, even a necessity to apply diplomatic pressure on Egypt to open its borders to refugees, led by Israel from behind. A complex and coordinated diplomatic maneuver with the U.S. and European countries is required to pressure Egypt into temporarily opening its border to Palestinian refugees. Such a move would alleviate concerns about entanglements in Rafah and the baseless accusations of genocide against Israel. As far as we know, there has been no organized and systematic Israeli effort on this issue (see the document "Let Their People Go").


Setting a political goal for the war can improve Israel's handling of the strategic entanglement it is in on several dimensions, including increasing the potential involvement of regional countries in the humanitarian space. In the past, we wrote that our analysis led us to conclude that any Israeli agenda should be based on three principles: opposition to a full-fledged Palestinian state, insistence on security control over the Gaza Strip, and transferring civil control there to a Palestinian entity. Accordingly, we believe Israel should promote an agenda aimed at a renewed Palestinian Authority as a permanent solution (read more here).


It is not too late to work towards dismantling UNRWA. The dismantling of UNRWA, which is under Hamas control and under the guise of its humanitarian activities, maintains Hamas' power base and its civilian presence in the area. Israel has not acted decisively enough to dismantle the organization, a move that would effectively remove the Palestinian right of return from the diplomatic agenda. Such a result would be a defeat for Hamas (read more here).


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References:


1. For example, The Wall Street Journal published communications from Sinwar, in which he showed indifference to the loss of Palestinian lives and claimed that Israel has more to lose from the war than Hamas does. Mousa Abu Marzook also publicly stated that, according to Hamas, the responsibility for protecting the population in Gaza lies with the UN, while the responsibility for providing services to them lies with Israel. Ismail Haniyeh has previously said that Hamas needs the blood of Gaza's women, children, and elderly to "wake up the situation."

2. See the Reut Institute document "The Red-Green Alliance Comes to America," 11/2024.

3. The quote is from Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland on Channel 7, 23.11.23

4. Yotam Cohen, Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Civil Campaign, Dado Center, 15.6.24


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