The farce of Israel’s ‘humanitarianism’ in Gaza

The farce of Israel’s ‘humanitarianism’ in Gaza
7 min read

Yara M. Asi

04 December, 2023
Whether it's a brief ‘pause’ on killing Palestinians or aid temporarily allowed to enter Gaza, Israel is not demonstrating humanitarianism, its failures to fulfil duties under international law & resuming attacks shows this, argues Yara M. Asi.
Oxfam pointed out 'the creation of safe zones cannot be used to label everything else a legitimate target,' writes Yara M. Asi. [GETTY]

On 15 November, the Israeli military posted pictures on its official Twitter (X) feed of sealed cardboard boxes, explicitly marked with the words “Medical Supplies,” brought to Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in the Gaza Strip. The caption of the photo boasted, “We can now confirm that incubators, baby food and medical supplies, provided by the IDF, have successfully reached the hospital.”

This was clearly meant to be presented as a humanitarian effort. Yet what was left unsaid is much more illuminating about how humanitarianism works in Gaza: that supplies for the hospital are only limited because Israel imposed a complete siege. This kept out most of the aid trucks waiting at the Rafah border, as well as cut off electricity and water. This “gift” of incubators, baby food, and medical supplies was accompanied by an unprecedented raid of the hospital, deemed “totally unacceptable” by the head of the World Health Organization. Several premature babies had already died because of lack of electricity, supplies, and staff.

Of course, this delivery also came more than a month into the most devastating bombing campaign in recent times, with more than 6000 bombs dropped in just the first week. Since then, locals estimate that more than 40,000 tons of explosives have been dropped on Gaza, a territory that is just 365 square kilometres and is one of the most densely populated places in the world.

Tens of thousands of homes have been completely destroyed, while hundreds of thousands more have been damaged. No civilian infrastructure has been spared; including schools, bakeries, factories, water treatment facilities, telecommunications infrastructure, stores, mosques, churches, and libraries. At least 15,000 people have been killed—more people than Russia has killed in Ukraine in nearly two years.

Amidst all this destruction, how could humanitarianism be a bad thing? After all, it is “emergency relief for vulnerable and suffering people”—who could dispute the need for that?

But the exploitation of humanitarianism in Gaza does little to genuinely reduce vulnerability and prevent suffering. Aid distribution has essentially been dictated by the terms of the actor doing the bombing and imposing the siege, and the manner in which “pauses” have been portrayed as generous acts of mercy, shows how little genuine humanity is afforded to Palestinians.

Just days after 7 October, it became clear that it was the needs of Israel that would be centred in professed humanitarian efforts. The global powers acquiesced to a complete siege of Gaza, which Amnesty International quickly deemed an act of collective punishment and thus a war crime. These same powers lauded themselves for finally persuading Israel to allow several dozen trucks to enter two weeks after hostilities began and past the point where significant deprivation was already widespread across Gaza (the norm prior to 7 October was several hundred trucks per day).

Israel did not allow trucks with fuel to enter until mid-November, long after the loss of fuel led to multiple deaths due to lack of ability to power medical equipment, the inability of ambulances to reach patients, and power cuts to telecommunications had let to complete blackouts.

Israel was also accused of “weaponising” aid by only allowing it to reach the south of Gaza, leaving out those in the north who either chose to stay or were unable to leave (including people with disabilities, the elderly, and those needing constant medical care). It was clear Israel was limiting aid distribution to the areas they wanted to allow Gazans to gather, and attacked many who tried to return to the north.

Furthermore, early on, when Israel mandated that more than one million people evacuate the north of Gaza, they had given specific routes for people to use as humanitarian corridors. These routes were bombed and attacked. Those that survive – people pushing loved ones in wheelchairs, parents walking while carrying their multiple children, elderly people walking with canes, people that were recently hospitalised and still recovering – end up walking for miles only to arrive (in the best case) at an overcrowded and under-serviced shelter for an unknown period of time. Again, what is humanitarian about these conditions?

Then there was the humanitarian pauses. The White House had apparently pressed Israel on this idea of temporary breaks in the otherwise nonstop bombing, of initially up to four hours per day, to allow Palestinians to flee. Israel had committed to warning people at least three hours in advance. However, amidst weeks of nonstop death and destruction, informing people they had mere hours to make the decision to stay or go, to attempt to bury their loved ones, or to collect all their belongings in order to take a long, uncertain, and dangerous journey away from their home, with no guarantee they could ever return, is hardly a relief let alone humanitarian.

As Oxfam pointed out in a recent press release, the very notion of a humanitarian pause or corridor as needed to allow for evacuation or the distribution of aid is misleading, because civilians should never be targeted and the denial of humanitarian aid is blatantly illegal.

Moreover, “the creation of safe zones cannot be used to label everything else a legitimate target,” the organisation added.

Yet, the US Secretary of State has allegedly urged Israel to create more “safe zones” in Gaza once the bombing commences, telling reporters that Israel must ensure “humanitarian civilian protection plans” before it continues its military operations. How can such a concept be taken seriously considering the utter destruction Israel has waged on Gaza thus far, including in places people were told were “safe”?

Importantly, Israel remains the occupying power in the Gaza Strip. It has certain legal obligations towards those living there, and so anything aside from fulfilling its duty is already a dereliction and should not be considered “humanitarian,” especially if it is other countries that are compensating for the failures. In this way, international humanitarian aid to people in Gaza is also aiding Israel which also continues to receive billions in military aid from many of these same countries, and is the US’ top recipient.

The extent to which the concept of humanitarianism has been warped in the Gaza Strip, including long before this most recent bombing campaign, shows the extent to which global powers are willing to go against their own stated principles in pursuit of political goals, regardless of whether they adhere to international law. Meanwhile, those who work at actual humanitarian agencies have been desperately calling for a permanent ceasefire and unfettered access to aid for weeks.


As this most recent temporary ceasefire in Gaza seems to have come to an end after just one week, reports emerged that Israel has again completely barred the entry of trucks filled with food, water, medicine, and fuel from entering.

During this so-called humanitarian pause, many in Gaza spent their time digging the bodies of loved ones out of the rubble. If they were lucky, they were able to bury them and allow themselves just a bit of time to mourn. They returned to their destroyed homes to retrieve what was left of their possessions and checked in on neighbours to find out who was still left alive.

Children basked in the quiet of the sky, free from the hum of drones and the earth-shaking pounding of bombs. Families splashed in the sea, and perhaps even felt a bit of joy for the first times in months.

If this temporary pause was humanitarian, what is it called now that it is over?

Yara M. Asi, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Global Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida, a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and a US Fulbright Scholar to the West Bank.

Follow her on Twitter: @Yara_M_Asi

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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