The trucks carrying aid for Gaza stop for exhaustive inspections by Israeli authorities. They can pass through two border crossings only during limited hours. Inside the territory, vehicles travel over a landscape of rubble and ruined roads to distribute the aid to desperate, hungry crowds.
These obstacles are contributing to a growing humanitarian crisis, according to aid officials and two U.S. senators who recently visited Rafah, one of the two crossings into Gaza that is open for aid trucks. Aid groups and the U.N. warn that the risk of famine is widening, that the territory’s health care system is collapsing and that contagious diseases are spreading rapidly.
Israel has been bombarding and besieging Gaza since Oct. 7, when Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups raided Israel, killing about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. The war has damaged the roads the trucks use to travel and crippled the communications networks that are essential for coordinating aid distribution. Israel’s siege has dried up almost all the fuel and cut off electricity.
Fighting and Israeli airstrikes have killed about 23,000 people in Gaza, according to health officials in Gaza, including more than 150 aid workers, according to the U.N. and aid groups, who say the war prevents others from being able to report for duty.
Aid groups say the trucks sometimes come under fire from Israeli forces, despite their efforts to coordinate the convoys with the Israeli military in advance.
“The humanitarian community has been left with the impossible mission of supporting more than two million people, even as its own staff are being killed and displaced, as communication blackouts continue, as roads are damaged and convoys are shot at,” Martin Griffiths, the top U.N. humanitarian chief, said in a statement last week.
A spokesman for Israel’s military, Nir Dinar, rejected claims that aid convoys had come under Israeli fire.
Warehouses meant to store aid have become shelters for displaced Gazans; desperate Gazans loot the warehouses that remain and pull food from trucks.
The Gazan civilians who take the supplies “are desperate and angry and need food,” said Dr. Guillemette Thomas, a medical coordinator based in Jerusalem for Doctors Without Borders, echoing warnings by U.N. officials who say a larger and more sustained flow of aid is needed.
Israeli officials, who insist that there is enough food and water for civilians in Gaza, have blamed the United Nations, saying it should find more staff, extend workers’ hours and deploy more trucks to distribute the aid. The officials say the military coordinates with aid groups to arrange safe passage for convoys, and announces daily pauses in the fighting for Gazans to collect aid.
Under U.S. pressure, Israel reopened a second crossing to Gaza, Kerem Shalom, in mid-December, allowing aid trucks through.
Col. Moshe Tetro, the head of the Israeli government administration that liaises with Gaza, told reporters at the Kerem Shalom crossing on Wednesday that Israel had done its part by increasing its capacity for inspecting aid.
“The bottleneck, as I see it, is the capability of the international organizations inside Gaza to receive this aid,” he said. He added, “I’m sure that when we see the other side being more effective, we will see more movement.”
When Kerem Shalom reopened, Israel committed to allowing in 200 trucks a day. Nearly a month later, however, the total entering Gaza each day falls short of that target: Gaza has received an average of about 129 trucks loaded with food, water and medical supplies each day over the last week, according to U.N. figures. That includes 193 trucks on Wednesday, the biggest convoy since Kerem Shalom reopened.
Those figures also include trucks that crossed through the Rafah border point with Egypt, which was the only point where aid could cross until Kerem Shalom reopened. Before the war, Rafah mainly handled people transiting in and out of Gaza. Kerem Shalom previously served as the conduit for some 500 trucks a day, about 100 of which carried food and other aid. The rest carried fuel and food for sale, medical supplies and other commercial goods.
Now the commercial goods are gone, and nearly all Gaza’s flour mills, bakeries, supermarkets and other stores are closed, leaving only the thin trickle of aid to support the population.
“There are now 2.2 million people wholly reliant on aid to survive, where before many could provide for themselves,” said Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman for UNRWA, the main U.N. agency that provides services and aid to Palestinians.
Before reaching Gaza, the agreement governing aid delivery requires each truck to submit to Israeli inspections to weed out anything that could benefit Hamas — a process Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who recently visited Rafah to meet aid officials called “totally arbitrary” and “cumbersome.”
At the Kerem Shalom crossing on Wednesday, a few trucks waited to be screened in a maze of driveways and parking lots. Idling in another lot were trucks that had already passed inspection, including seven loaded with rice, pasta, chickpeas and sliced carrots, as well as ready-to-eat meals donated by World Central Kitchen. Most of the trucks were not packed full, possibly to ease the inspection process.
While Colonel Tetro declined to explain how Israel conducts inspections for fear he would “expose our methods to the enemy,” he said the security checks range from canine units and testing samples at special labs to “opening box by box wherever we are suspicious.”
Aid officials say it can take hours for Israeli inspectors to comb through the trucks — and inspectors usually give no reason for refusing items, Mr. Van Hollen said. Even trucks whose contents are cleared in advance by Israeli officials are sometimes turned back after inspection, he said. If a single item is rejected, he said, the truck must be sent back with its cargo and repacked to restart the inspection process.
An Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of government rules, denied this, saying that only what was prohibited for security reasons was barred from entering Gaza.
Mr. Van Hollen said he had toured a warehouse in Rafah full of aid items that Israel had rejected, including tents, oxygen concentrators, water-testing kits, water filters, solar-powered refrigerators and medical kits used for delivering babies.
The security official said Israel was concerned Hamas could use oxygen concentrators to oxygenate their tunnels, but that inspectors did allow concentrators if they knew which medical facility they were destined for.
Once trucks are cleared by Israel, they must receive a second green light from Egypt — in close coordination with Israel — to cross into Gaza, Mr. Van Hollen said. He said Israeli drones monitor trucks that are screened and waiting to cross, to make sure they do not violate an Israeli rule requiring that trucks be isolated after inspection to prevent new items from being added. A driver leaving the truck to get a cup of coffee while waiting could violate that rule, Mr. Van Hollen said he was told.
Further slowing the aid, both crossings are closed on Friday afternoons and Saturdays, the Israeli weekend, a schedule Israeli officials say the United Nations agreed to, but which aid officials say was an Israeli decision.
Kerem Shalom also closes regularly for other reasons, said Ms. Alrifai, the UNRWA spokeswoman. For example, aid crossings there were suspended for a few days in late December, according to the U.N., because a drone strike killed four people near the checkpoint.
Mr. Van Hollen and the other senator who visited Rafah last week, Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, on Wednesday called for Israel to streamline inspections and ensure aid groups could safely deliver assistance within Gaza.
“First of all, you’ve got to get the goods and the humanitarian supplies into Gaza,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “But it is extremely difficult to get them to the people in need when you’re worried about bombs or artillery or getting killed in other ways.”