Analysis: Gaza’s Spiraling, Unprecedented Humanitarian Catastrophe

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
People walk past rubble structures in Gaza on Feb. 24.

The disaster that unfolded Thursday marked a new low in the Gaza Strip’s unfolding calamity. Local authorities said more than 100 people were killed and more than 700 others injured, accusing Israeli forces of opening fire on a crowd of people in devastated Gaza City waiting for humanitarian aid. An IDF official acknowledged that IDF troops on one end of the convoy fired at members of the crowd who were approaching in, what they called, a threatening manner but said many Palestinians died in a stampede as they sought to reach trucks carrying vital aid.

The grisly incident encapsulates much of the horror of the moment in Gaza, a territory that has been pulverized by the Israeli military campaign that followed Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 strike on southern Israel. On social media, observers and journalists described the scene as the “flour massacre.” Overwhelmed, semi-destroyed hospitals in Gaza absorbed a new influx of hundreds of wounded civilians, many of whose injuries, officials told The Washington Post, were inflicted by gunfire.

More than 30,000 people in Gaza have been killed since the ongoing war began. Hunger and disease stalk the land and drive countless Gazans on the sort of desperate, daily searches for food and water that can end in the scenes witnessed Thursday. The bulk of Gaza’s more than 2 million people face the prospect of famine – a state of affairs that constitutes the fastest decline in a population’s nutrition status ever recorded, according to aid workers. Children are starving at the fastest rate the world has ever known.

Aid groups have been pointing to Israel restricting the flow of assistance into the territory as a major driver of the crisis. Some prominent Israeli officials openly champion stymying these transfers of aid. “We must be clear: civilians in Gaza are falling sick from hunger and thirst because of Israel’s entry restrictions,” Jan Egeland, chief of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in an email statement after a recent visit to Gaza. “Life-saving supplies are being intentionally blocked, and women and children are paying the price.”

Hopes are dimming for an imminent diplomatic breakthrough that could see Hamas free its remaining hostages and hostilities cease. This week, it emerged that the Biden administration may even be contemplating airdropping aid into Gaza, given the delays and difficulties in supplying vital food and other goods over land crossings. Some analysts couldn’t help but consider the irony of the United States dropping supplies onto a population that’s seeking respite from months of Israeli attacks with U.S.-made munitions. Such measures would “mostly serve to relieve the guilty consciences of senior U.S. officials whose policies are contributing to the ongoing atrocities and risk of famine in Gaza,” said Scott Paul, Oxfam’s humanitarian director, in a statement.

A number of top U.N. officials voiced their alarm Thursday. “I am appalled at the reported killing and injury of hundreds of people during a transfer of aid supplies west of Gaza City today,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s lead humanitarian officer, said. “Life is draining out of Gaza at terrifying speed.”

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warned of an “unknown number of people” – believed to be in the tens of thousands – lying under the rubble of buildings brought down by Israeli strikes. Volker Turk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said about one in 20 people in Gaza is now dead or wounded in remarks made in Geneva. He also detailed the suffering of the living.

“All people in Gaza are at imminent risk of famine. Almost all are drinking salty and contaminated water. Health care across the territory is barely functioning,” he said. “Just imagine what this means for the wounded, and people suffering infectious-disease outbreaks. In northern Gaza, where the operational space for humanitarian work is now almost zero, many are already believed to be starving. In all other parts of Gaza, humanitarian assistance has become extremely challenging – and this is not only dangerous, but also dehumanizing.”

Perhaps most agonizing in all this is the ordeal of Gaza’s children. There are myriad anecdotes of babies and children wasting away without adequate food and dying from poisoning due to consuming animal feed, which some are substituting into their diets in the absence flour. UNICEF, the U.N.’s children’s agency, estimated in February that about 17,000 children in Gaza are unaccompanied or separated from their families. A generation of Palestinian children will be scarred by the toll of the war, the obliteration of their homes and schools, and the deep trauma of evading bombs while grieving loss.

“Since the start of the war, aid agencies have delivered warning upon warning about the harrowing toll it is exacting on children,” my colleague Niha Masih reported in a piece on what’s befallen young people in the territory. “Nearly 10 percent of Gazan children under age 5 are acutely malnourished. … About 1,000 children have lost one or both legs, according to UNICEF. Those who remain physically unscathed, Save the Children says, are experiencing grave psychological trauma.”

Seema Jilani, a senior technical adviser for emergency health at the International Rescue Committee, recently returned from a stint working in emergency wards in Gaza’s hospitals. “This war is generating a generation of orphans who currently have no access to education, have no access to school, have no access to play or educational development, have no access to health and hygiene services,” she told Masih. “It’s a very grim picture and a very bleak future.”