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Thursday, March 7, 2024

Op-Ed: Gaza desperately needs more humanitarian aid now. And less humanitarianism soon.

Written by Topher McDougal

The following post was written by Topher L. McDougal, Professor of Economic Development, Kroc School of Peace Studies, University of San Diego and founding faculty member of the MS in Humanitarian Action program at the Kroc School.

The United States, in cooperation with Jordan, has now initiated airdrops of humanitarian supplies – about 38,000 meals in 66 bundles – to beaches southwest Gaza. This development – extraordinary in its necessity at all in the face of obstacles thrown up by a US ally – comes in the wake of recent reports of Israeli soldiers shooting into a crowd of hungry people queuing for aid, killing 117, and after four months of relentless bombardment and starvation. Sadly, it comes too late for many Gazans already dead of acute malnutrition.

The US did not coordinate the drops with any group in Gaza. It claims it will work to improve collection and distribution strategies over the course of the expected successive drops. The unfortunate irony is that the US has paused funding to the first and largest mechanism for the delivery of humanitarian assistance on the ground, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), based on unsubstantiated Israeli allegations that it is riddled with terrorist employees. UNRWA remains the best local partner for maximizing equitable and effective distribution of desperately needed food, water, medicines, blankets, and tents. The lack of the type of coordination that UNRWA provides may have contributed to last week's deadly stampede.

These logistical considerations speak to deeper, unpleasant truths: the ways humanitarianism has served historically as the handmaiden to a violent state formation. Nowhere is this more true than Israel-Palestine.

Humanitarianism and Israel

Humanitarianism in its modern form and the state of Israel co-emerged in the same year on the international stage. On 11 May 1949, the United Nations admitted the newly created State of Israel to its ranks. Three months later, the UN adopted the founding humanitarian charter, the Geneva Conventions.

The formation of the state of Israel was predicated on the displacement of 800,000 Palestinians in 1948. Its accession to the international community one year later occurred within months of the United Nations codifying modern humanitarianism. The timing is more than merely coincidental or ironic. Both phenomena served to cover the darkest parts of Western failings.

Western support for the Zionist movement represented a tacit acknowledgment that Europe was unable or unwilling to uphold pluralistic societies and protect Jews. And International Humanitarian Law emerged not to prevent the wars so common during state formation, but to sanitize its most unseemly outcomes. For the cynical, humanitarianism was window dressing, a sop for the bleeding hearts, fine white cloth to hide from view the bodies of all those crushed by the spasms of nations being born.


As if to prove the point, on December 8th, 1949 the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), one of the earliest UN humanitarian agencies. Originally given a three-year mandate until a political solution could be found, its operations have stretched for three-quarters of a century to provide assistance to perhaps the longest surviving humanitarian caseload in history. In extending UNRWA's mandate, the UN has also extended the very meaning of humanitarianism far past its original intent. It now both substitutes for, and excuses the international community’s failure to foster, a national Palestinian government. Humanitarianism stretched to cover the original sin of decolonization in the Middle East.

The establishment of UNRWA has therefore been paradoxically both critical to the survival of the Palestinian people, as well as a fundamental impediment to the achievement of their nationhood. The most basic public services of a responsible state – education and healthcare – have been carried out by UNRWA. The organization eventually grew into a kind of parallel state without accountability to the citizenry. Of the 36 hospitals and major health centers operating in Gaza before the war, 22 (or 61%) were UNRWA operated. Similar percentages describe UNRWA’s contributions to education in Gaza, with its erstwhile 282 schools.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority was never fully able to realize a citizen-state relationship. It was tasked primarily with the impossible task of guaranteeing external security against an antagonistic Israel that held all the cards: a losing proposition that reflects in today’s polls.

UNRWA now finds itself under assault (sadly not an uncommon situation for the group), held to a staggeringly blatant double-standard: it is defunded by several countries, including the United States, which had previously pledged a $250 million contribution, due to unproven reports of terrorist actions of 12 of its 13,000 employees. Meanwhile, the United States continues to fund the Israeli military to the tune of $13.8 billion despite an ICJ ruling based on extensive documentation and finding the systematic bombardment, displacement, and starvation of Palestinians enabled in part by that funding to reasonably constitute a possible instance of genocide. Despite the cynical campaign to tar and feather the organization, UNRWA is desperately needed to deliver aid in the short term.

Hard Choices

In the longer term, if we lift our eyes to a post-war horizon, UNRWA must be relinquished to the Palestinians to bolster the capacity of their embryonic state. The humanitarian community has learned some things about the aftermath of war and disaster. For one, they have learned that the shift back from humanitarian aid to development assistance involves yielding back agency. So, for example, in Liberia, the International Medical Corps made a plan to transfer the mobile health clinics they had run during that country’s civil war to the newly reformed Ministry of Health. The Ministry built its capacity to manage such services, while addressing a felt need in local communities throughout the country.

Humanitarianism must be humbled, in Palestine and around the world. Because humanitarianism is, at heart, a humble endeavor: the simple idea that none of us should suffer and that we can and should help each other. But the best of intentions to ameliorate the suffering of others cannot be allowed to assuage our own consciences at our failures to make hard decisions. The real question now is the same as it has been for three-quarters of a century: Will Palestinians get a nation and survive, or know the fate of the Circassians: death, dispersal, diaspora. Airdrops can keep some people alive, but they’re more theater than true humanitarian aid. And they can’t deliver real hope for the future.

Topher McDougal

About the Author

Topher McDougal

Topher McDougal is a Professor at the Kroc School of Peace Studies

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