Merkley: Gaza needs a massive increase in humanitarian aid immediately (Opinion)

The Oregonian

The suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza is nearly unimaginable. Innocent people are on the brink of starvation. Injured children are having limbs amputated without anesthesia. Health officials are warning of an imminent cholera outbreak. An estimated 85% of Palestinians in Gaza have been driven from their homes, and more than 1 million people have fled south and overwhelmed the city of Rafah. Some are paying bribes up to $10,000 to escape the territory.

No one in Gaza is safe from the falling bombs. Longtime humanitarian workers, who have served in conflict zones from Ukraine to Syria to Sudan, told me they have never witnessed a disaster of this scale or severity.

I was one of the first U.S. senators to call for an immediate ceasefire and massive humanitarian aid to Gaza. Earlier this month, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, and I went to the Rafah crossing on the border between Egypt and Gaza to witness the humanitarian response for ourselves. What we saw was frustrating and unacceptable.

Trucks filled with food, water and medical supplies are lined up for miles in the desert waiting their turn to be granted entry into Gaza. It can often take more than a week from the time drivers load their trucks until they get final permission from Israel to deliver their loads into Gaza. Even if all the items on a truck have been pre-approved by Israel to ensure they are not “dual use” items that have a potential military purpose, Israeli authorities can and do still reject some items at an inspection site. And if a single item is rejected, the entire truckload is rejected. During our trip, we examined a warehouse full of rejected items, including water filters and solar-powered refrigerators. An item approved for entry one day could be rejected the next.

At Rafah, we spoke with two medical professionals. One described bones shattered by bomb blasts and untreatable trauma to internal organs. The other presented pictures of his patients with burns deep into the flesh. He observed that these burns are incredibly hard to treat. They wanted us to know the 250-bed hospital where they worked had over 750 patients, not counting those who had been turned away, some because they were too seriously injured to treat. They also pointed out that these patients need food in addition to drugs and treatments, and they are getting very little. Only 15 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals remain partially functional.

After making it through Israel’s inspection and getting final approval to go into Gaza, the aid trucks face additional hurdles: damaged roads, falling bombs and artillery shells. There is no reliable “deconfliction” system to ensure that humanitarian organizations – including their operating sites and their workers’ movements – are safe as they conduct their lifesaving work. Truck drivers, ambulance drivers, and health care and aid workers are risking their lives. Hundreds have been killed.

The broken pre-clearance and deconfliction systems are making it impossible to get anywhere near the needed level of humanitarian aid in Gaza. Before the war, an average of 500 trucks entered Gaza daily. But according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an average of fewer than 150 trucks were allowed through each day this week, when much more aid is needed. This is unconscionable.

As Sen. Van Hollen and I said upon our return,Israel has every right to eliminate the military threat of Hamas after the horrific attack that killed 1,200 Israelis. But how they do it matters.

At least 23,000 people have been killed in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, and many more have been hurt by the bombing. This suffering must stop. There is no justifiable reason a truck cannot be loaded, inspected and cleared to deliver its aid the same day rather than waiting a week or more.

As we mark the hundredth day of war, I am calling on Israel and the United States — in partnership with Egypt, Jordan and non-governmental organizations — to fix these issues immediately so that the flow of humanitarian aid and commercial goods, like food and medicine, can be vastly increased to meet these urgent and enormous needs.

I reiterate my call for a ceasefire to provide a better opportunity to secure the release of all the hostages, to end the carnage from bombs and artillery shells and to facilitate humanitarian aid. A massive increase in humanitarian aid must happen immediately or both Israel and the United States will be complicit in the unacceptable and massive continued suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.