As Besieged Gaza Grows Desperate, Donors Drop Aid from the Sky

Hussam Hasan for The Washington Post
A view of part of the Gaza Strip from a Jordanian air force C-130 delivering aid to Gaza.

KING ABDULLAH II AIR BASE, Jordan – From above, northern Gaza might be the skeletal remains of a forgotten ancient city, the broken pieces of its bombed-out buildings scattered like handfuls of chipped teeth.

But the area, which for weeks bore the brunt of the fighting in Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, is far from abandoned. Its people are facing starvation, aid workers say, and clamoring for relief. Jordanian air force pilots dropped 33 tons of medical supplies, food and other necessities on Gaza on Thursday – vital support for those it reaches, but nowhere near enough to meet the widespread need in the besieged enclave of more than 2 million people.

Neither are the truckloads of aid that are entering the strip at a declining pace – and that carry dangers of their own. More than 100 people were killed in Gaza City on Thursday and 700 wounded, health officials there said, after a crowd converged on a humanitarian aid convoy. Palestinian officials and witnesses blamed Israeli gunfire; Israeli officials blamed a stampede.

“I think the airdrop is a last-resort, extraordinarily expensive way of providing assistance,” Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the principal U.N. agency for Palestinian affairs, told reporters Thursday in East Jerusalem. “I don’t think that the airdropping of food in the Gaza Strip should be the answer today. The real answer is: Open the crossings and bring convoys and medical assistance into the Gaza Strip.”

A new mission

Jordan has been airdropping crates of humanitarian aid, affixed with GPS-guided parachutes provided by the United States and Britain, to the hospitals it operates in Gaza since early November.

But this week it began a new operation: airdropping smaller crates of food, diapers, sanitary products and other items along the strip’s Mediterranean coast.

Each C-130 Hercules can carry 16 such crates, each about a quarter the size of the packages headed to the hospitals, to maximize reach to civilians. The crates are wrapped in protective plastic and fitted with parachutes and shock-absorbing bases.

Some bear posters drawn by Jordanian schoolchildren. One showed a Palestinian flag topped with hearts, the legend “Hashem + Salma love you” and a Quranic phrase – “And he said, we shall strengthen your arm through your brother” – written in a childish script.

Each package held a dozen boxes of food ration packs, including maqloubeh, the quintessentially Palestinian dish of layered rice, meat, eggplant, potatoes and cauliflower.

“The amount of aid that’s reaching [Gaza] is not enough, whether by air or by truck,” a spokesman for the Jordanian Armed Forces said. “So any possible method that allows us to bring in aid, we resort to, to fulfill the humanitarian need.”

Officials declined to discuss how much the flights cost, or how they’re coordinated with Israel.

A hush over Gaza

For the first hour after takeoff from Jordan’s King Abdullah II Air Base, the C-130 is busy with activity. The crew members – all men – attach and detach crates, test oxygen tanks, check and recheck parachute straps.

The plane flies west, passing over Tel Aviv to the Mediterranean Sea, where it veers south. When Gaza comes into a view, a hush falls. Half a dozen crew members crowd around a small window and stare at the destruction below.

Jordan and Gaza are home to around the same number of Palestinians. Most of the Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations hold Jordanian passports. For Jordanians, the Palestinian cause is complicated and emotionally charged.

An hour into the flight, the crew members don oxygen masks, the plane’s rear cargo door opens and the boxes slide off. The man at the open ramp looks down, swivels around and flashes two thumbs up. A half-dozen thumbs rise in response.

He starts to turn back but suddenly stops. He gazes down at the strip, the hospital, the broken houses surrounding it. He pulls out his phone from his pocket and takes photos.

The plane that carried two Washington Post journalists released its cargo above a Jordanian field hospital in the north, where workers were waiting for it. Heavy winds blew one container into Israel, the armed forces spokesman later said.

The men finally sit down, exhaustion on their faces. They pass around crunchy apples and bottles of water. One of them tries to conceal the vapor from his vape pen. He hasn’t been home in 20 days, he says. He sleeps at the base to participate in these drops daily.

He stares at the now-closed back door. “May God relieve them of this,” he says, heavily.

The volume of aid entering Gaza slumped this month after Israeli airstrikes targeted Palestinian police officers guarding convoys, forcing them to retreat and leaving truck drivers to fend for themselves against attacks from militants and an increasingly desperate population.

Gaza is suffering a “humanitarian apocalypse,” the Norwegian Refugee Council says. Famine is “almost inevitable,” the United Nations warns, in increasingly urgent reports. The world is witnessing “the mass killing of children in slow motion,” Alexandra Saieh, Save the Children International’s head of humanitarian policy and advocacy, told Al Jazeera English on Thursday.

As pressure on the international community to act grows, Western and Arab countries have joined Jordan. Some send packages; others, their own aircraft. Planes from France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates this week joined the operation along the coast; for the two Arab countries, it was apparently the first such trip. Jordanian planes have also carried aid provided by the United States and Britain.

The United States is considering airdrops and deploying a hospital ship or aid ship, a U.S. official said, “among other options as we work to try to increase humanitarian aid flows into Gaza.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the discussions.

A State Department spokesman, asked Thursday whether the United States was considering airdrops, said that “we continue to try to improve the distribution system and work through that with the government of Israel and the United Nations and try to find a way to unstick this problem that we have right now with providing security to convoys of assistance.”

But the “real solution here,” spokesman Matt Miller said, is “an agreement that would dramatically increase the flow of assistance.”

The demand for aid in Gaza is many times more than the trickle that enters the strip, the Jordanian Armed Forces spokesman said. Assistance from other countries is crucial, he said, to even approach the enclave’s needs.

The C-130′s next destination is along the coast, where sight lines unobstructed by buildings allow civilians to spot the cargo drop with their naked eyes.

Al Jazeera aired videos this week of families gathered by the water to watch, children squealing with joy as they spotted the parachutes dancing above them.

When some packages this week landed in the sea, Gazans boarded skiffs to retrieve them.

In one clip, people circle together, faces turned skyward as they track a falling object.

Then, deflation. It was just a piece of cardboard.