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Aboard Jordan's aid airdrop over Gaza, a last resort for relief to Palestinians there

Jordanian air force personnel inside a C-130 aircraft after airdropping pallets of aid over Gaza on Thursday.
Moises Saman for NPR
Jordanian air force personnel inside a C-130 aircraft after airdropping pallets of aid over Gaza on Thursday.

FLYING OVER NORTHERN GAZA STRIP — Seventeen-thousand feet in the air, Jordanian air force personnel are unhooking the chains to let pallets of wrapped cardboard boxes attached to parachutes roll out the cargo door.

The aid drop on Thursday is part of a dramatic and desperate effort to get food to Gaza's starving population as Israel allows only a trickle of aid to enter through the country's sole working land border.

Airdrops — expensive, cumbersome and inefficient — are considered by the aid community the last resort of food delivery. But Jordan hopes that the tons of food it is dropping during the 5-month-old war in Gaza will save at least some lives.

The collapse of aid delivery to Gaza was illustrated on Thursday by the deaths of what Gaza health authorities say were at least 100 people trying to get to a convoy of trucks delivering food near Gaza City. The Israeli military said that many Palestinians died in the crush to reach the trucks, and said its own troops opened fire on crowds moving toward them "in a manner that endangered the force."

Gaza authorities say hundreds more people were injured.

"I was standing by a truck when I got hit by a bullet in my leg," said Ahmed al-Haj Salem, who was being treated at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. "I fell to the ground and there was another shot fired that hit my hand."

Israel acknowledges that it opened fire in what it said was self-defense but said most of the dead were killed after being run over by the trucks or trampled in a stampede.

Salem, 31, said he lay bleeding on the ground for two hours while more badly wounded people were taken to the hospital.

Aerial view of a section of the Gaza Strip from the window of a Jordanian air force C-130 aircraft during an aid airdrop mission over Gaza.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
/
Moises Saman for NPR
Aerial view of a section of the Gaza Strip from the window of a Jordanian air force C-130 aircraft during an aid airdrop mission over Gaza.

With most of Gaza's infrastructure damaged or destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, there are few ambulances and even fewer hospitals, all trying to operate without electricity or basic medical supplies. Salem, like other casualties, was taken to hospital by horse-drawn cart.

Like many in Gaza, Salem spends much of his day walking miles trying to find food for his three children, his wife and his mother. Even for those with money, there is no food available to buy.

Salem said the crowd, desperate for food, dispersed when an Israeli tank appeared. But after it retreated they came back and stormed the trucks. He said that is when Israeli soldiers opened fire. Israel said it was using tanks to protect the convoy of private contractors in an aid delivery effort it was overseeing.

The United Nations, which has been unable to deliver aid into northern Gaza for more than a week due to the ongoing war between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas against the backdrop of Israel's blockade of Gaza, made clear it was not involved.

Israel denies that it is blocking aid but aid groups say Israel has presented so many obstacles to deliveries through the Rafah crossing from Egypt that the food shipments have slowed to a trickle.

On Friday, a Palestinian journalist in Gazaposted on X (formerly Twitter) that thousands of Palestinians desperate for food gathered at the same spot where civilians were killed on Thursday.

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders blamed Israeli actions for the deaths.

"This situation is the direct result of the string of unconscionable decisions taken by Israeli authorities while waging this war: a relentless bombing and shelling campaign, a complete siege imposed on the enclave, the bureaucratic hurdles and lack of security mechanisms to ensure safe food distribution from southern to northern Gaza, the systematic destruction of livelihood capacities such as farming, herding and fishing," Doctors Without Borders said in a statement after the killings near the aid trucks.

Palestinians carry bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an Israeli checkpoint, as Gaza residents face crisis levels of hunger, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City, Feb. 19.
Kosay Al Nemer / Reuters
/
Reuters
Palestinians carry bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an Israeli checkpoint, as Gaza residents face crisis levels of hunger, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City, Feb. 19.
Palestinians with empty pots receive food distributed by charity, in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, on Thursday. Gaza faces a worsening hunger crisis amid a blockade and ongoing Israeli offensive.
/ Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images
/
Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images
Palestinians with empty pots receive food distributed by charity, in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, on Thursday. Gaza faces a worsening hunger crisis amid a blockade and ongoing Israeli offensive.

The chief executive officer of Save the Children, one of the biggest nongovernmental aid organizations, said when she visited the Rafah crossing a month ago, fewer than 140 trucks were making it in every day — compared to an average of about 500 a day before the war.

"At the time, I said surely it can't get any worse and then every week I've been proven wrong," said Save the Children CEO Janti Soeripto. She said the number of trucks able to cross was as low as fewer than 25 some days, with Israel rejecting many trucks from crossing and sending others back without unloading after they were allowed to enter.

The Israeli military says it has to search every vehicle for weapons that could be used by Hamas, the Palestinian group that attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and sparking the invasion of Gaza. In response to the attack, Israel launched a military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 30,000 civilians, according to Gaza's health ministry.

The Israeli airstrikes have devastated Gaza's infrastructure and led to widespread food shortages.

"It's incredibly difficult to get supplies to people where they need it and to do that safely and securely," Soeripto said, adding that northern Gaza was particularly hard hit by lack of food and a crumbling medical system.

She said one Save the Children staffer in a maternity ward in Gaza reported that doctors were sending premature infants home to die because they did not have incubators to treat them. At least six children have died so far from malnutrition or from eating animal feed, the only food available, according to aid groups.

The U.K. foreign secretary, David Cameron, said in a statement Friday that in February only half the number of trucks crossed into Gaza as did in January, terming it "unacceptable."

"We can't separate what happened yesterday from the inadequate supplies," the statement read.

Pallets of aid on the tarmac wait to be loaded into a Jordanian Air Force C-130 aircraft before an airdrop mission over Gaza.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
/
Moises Saman for NPR
Pallets of aid on the tarmac wait to be loaded into a Jordanian Air Force C-130 aircraft before an airdrop mission over Gaza.

Gaza is an anomaly — a densely populated territory with borders under foreign military control. With Israel's refusal to allow in more aid, famine has descended on a population already weakened by five months of war.

Israel has barred foreign journalists from Gaza since the start of the war, except for rare instances when it has escorted them. That, along with disrupting phone and internet service, makes it extremely difficult to confirm what is happening on the ground. At the same time, Israeli strikes have killed at least 122 local journalists and media workers in Gaza since October,according to U.N. reports.

On Thursday, Jordan dropped seven tons of supplies over northern Gaza — the first aid shipment to the area in about a month. The pallets were loaded with cardboard boxes containing rice, flour, sugar, tea and milk, along with sanitary napkins.

It was impossible to see where the parachute-equipped pallets of food landed over northern Gaza. The meticulously planned airdrops, conducted with Israeli approval, are still subject to unpredictability. Jordan's military said while most of the pallets dropped Thursday landed in northern Gaza, the wind had blown one of them across the border into Israel.

Aboard a Jordanian Air Force plane on an aid air-drop mission over Gaza on Thursday.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
/
Moises Saman for NPR
Aboard a Jordanian Air Force plane on an aid air-drop mission over Gaza on Thursday.
Aboard a Jordanian Air Force plane on an aid air-drop mission over Gaza.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
/
Moises Saman for NPR
Aboard a Jordanian Air Force plane on an aid air-drop mission over Gaza.

On the tarmac at the King Abdullah II air base near the city of Zarka, more pallets were waiting to be loaded by Jordanian military personnel onto cargo planes for drops later in the day. The meals, similar to military meals-ready-to-eat for a population with little fuel for cooking, featured Arab dishes including mansaf, Jordan's national dish made of lamb, dried yogurt and rice.

The kingdom, which for years has operated a field hospital in Gaza, has so far conducted more than 21 aid airdrops since October. It says seven airdrops taking off from Jordanian air bases have been conducted by partner countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.

On the airfield on Thursday, photographers were prevented from photographing the flag of another Arab country on one of the pallets; saying it was one of two Arab nations participating in the airdrops that day that did not want their participation publicized. On the tarmac was a Qatari cargo plane that had intended to participate in an airdrop before it developed mechanical problems.

Jordan this week dropped other, waterproof boxes of rations into the sea off the Gaza coast where people waded into the water or set off on small boats to retrieve them.

Jordanian Air Force personnel inside a C-130 aircraft afterl air-dropping  pallets of aid over Gaza.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
/
Moises Saman for NPR
Jordanian Air Force personnel inside a C-130 aircraft afterl air-dropping pallets of aid over Gaza.

The U.N.'s humanitarian agency, OCHA, told the U.N. Security Council this week that one-quarter of Gaza's population, more than 576,000 people, were "one step away from famine," with 1 in 6 children under the age of 2 suffering from acute malnutrition.

While U.N. aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations say they are ready to send much more food and medicine to Gaza, those supplies have proved impossible to get it in.

"Aid convoys have come under fire and are systematically denied access to people in need. Humanitarian workers have been harassed, intimidated or detained by Israeli forces, and humanitarian infrastructure has been hit," said Jens Laerke, an OCHA spokesperson in Geneva.

Israel has said the lack of aid is due to U.N. inefficiency. Israel has accused, without providing evidence, a dozen employees of the U.N. agency that's the main aid group for Palestinians, UNRWA, of participating in the Oct. 7 attack. The claim prompted many donors, including the United States, to withhold much-needed funding. The European Commission on Friday said it welcomed an UNRWA investigation into the allegations and was restoring funding.

Israel's deputy permanent representative to the U.N. Security Council said his government was committed to improving access at the Rafah border crossing and reactivating another land crossing at Kerem Shalom in Israel.

Jordanian school children attached messages to pallets of aid to be airdropped over Gaza by the Jordanian Air Force.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
/
Moises Saman for NPR
Jordanian school children attached messages to pallets of aid to be airdropped over Gaza by the Jordanian Air Force.

"We have been calling for more crossings, more opening hours, more capacity to check trucks and pass them through, not have trucks be off and unloaded again four or five times," said Soeripto from Save the Children. "These are all fairly straightforward ways to make the logistics of this operation much easier, less painful and more effective. And none of these have been taken up so far."

Anas Baba contributed to this report in Gaza.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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