UK aid is still largely blocked from entering Gaza despite efforts to improve access

21 May 2024

Diplomatic efforts have so far been ineffective in securing access to get enough aid into Gaza to address the mounting humanitarian catastrophe, worsening as Israel’s invasion of Rafah progresses, the aid watchdog reports today (Tuesday 21 May).

The UK has contributed to a significant international humanitarian response to the crisis, committing more than £70 million in extra funding since the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October 2023, according to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI).

However, humanitarian experts have said that restrictions of movement in the delivery of humanitarian assistance – and repeated military strikes on aid convoys by Israel being met with ineffectual criticism by key donor countries including the UK – had the potential to damage trust in the international humanitarian system.

Land crossings are tightly controlled by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), with aid convoys subject to exhaustive inspections to prevent the delivery of ‘dual use’ items that might benefit Hamas or be used as a weapon. Stakeholders reported to ICAI an example of stone fruit being turned away for this reason. ICAI requested an interview with the Israeli authorities to comment on the reasons for the barriers to humanitarian aid, but no one was available.

The watchdog found that the UK’s aid response has focused on flexible funding to organisations already operational in Gaza such as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), UNICEF, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the World Food Programme (WFP). The UK allocated £27 million to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) in 2023-24, announced a further £70 million in February this year in humanitarian support, and an additional £4.5 million for women and girls’ healthcare.

However, funding for UNRWA was paused in January 2024 pending an investigation into allegations by the Israeli authorities that several UNWRA staff were involved in the October 2023 Hamas attacks. An independent report led by the former minister of foreign affairs in France, Catherine Colonna, has noted that no evidence has yet been forthcoming that Hamas staff were involved and several donors, including Spain, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Japan, Australia and the EU, have since announced the resumption of UNRWA funding.

In interviews, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) officials pointed out that the UK had already made its planned contributions to UNRWA for 2023-24 prior to the suspension. An announcement by the foreign secretary confirmed that the UK will outline their position on future funding to UNRWA upon completion of the ongoing investigation being conducted by the UN Office for Internal Oversight Services, in addition to the Colonna review.

The report also notes that the US, Spain, Canada, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands have all paused arms licenses or shipments to Israel over fears that they may be used in violation of international humanitarian law. At the time of writing, the government has declined to publish their assessment of whether international humanitarian law has been breached but the foreign secretary stated in April that he expected Israel to “abide by international humanitarian law, even when challenged”.

ICAI Chief Commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton said:

“The desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza is becoming an unprecedented catastrophe as Israel’s invasion of Rafah gets under way. While the UK has significantly increased aid to Gaza in response to the crisis it’s clear that very little is reaching those who urgently need it, with restrictions on land access – the only way to move enough aid – increasing and the situation for aid workers increasingly perilous.

“That the UK and other donors’ diplomatic attempts to improve access and save lives have so far been ineffective shows how fragile the system underpinning international humanitarian law is, confronting a hugely complex crisis such as this. We note that other donors have taken steps such as stopping or reducing arms sales or resuming funding to the main humanitarian agency, UNRWA, while the UK has not.”

The conflict, which escalated from a Hamas militant-led attack on Israel and the subsequent launch of a military campaign by Israel on Gaza with the objective to “destroy Hamas’s governing and military capabilities and to bring the hostages home”, has created a humanitarian disaster. Approximately 62% of all homes have been damaged or destroyed, more than 1.7 million people have been displaced, there is little access to medical treatment, and food supplies have been blocked, leading Gaza to the brink of famine, particularly in the North.

While the protection of aid workers delivering humanitarian assistance is enshrined in international law, the UK and other major powers have been largely ineffective at securing safety for aid agencies trying to enter Gaza, ICAI noted. After a convoy of World Central Kitchen workers were killed by Israeli Defence Force (IDF) airstrikes in April, the foreign secretary called for “guaranteed deconfliction for aid workers and other humanitarian work”. Deconfliction is the practice which allows coordination between aid agencies and military actors to ensure aid workers are not inadvertently caught up in military activities.

Yet the conflict has proven to be the deadliest for aid workers in 20 years, with 244 killed so far. The two most consistently accessible entry points to Gaza in the south have now been disrupted by the Israeli incursion into Rafah, with severe consequences for the civilian population and aid agencies’ fuel supply. A total of 59 trucks crossed into Gaza between 5 and 13 May, compared to 500 daily before the current conflict.

Alternatives to access by land cannot deliver aid at scale, so initiatives such as the opening of a port in Ashdod for the delivery of humanitarian supplies, and military-led aid drops have made little difference so far, and ICAI did not hear any optimism from experts that the newly built dock will change the overall position. In general there has been only temporary and limited improvement in aid reaching Gaza since the deaths of the World Central Kitchen aid workers, despite Israel’s commitments following that incident.

ICAI also notes that FCDO has to have a high risk appetite in order to provide aid to Gaza. The potential for aid diversion, corruption, harm to aid workers and Gaza’s citizens is high and with limited ability to monitor aid delivery in such a chaotic environment, the watchdog says that FCDO has little choice but to continue to manage risk carefully through due diligence, putting policies and procedures in place and working with partners with proven track records.

The report provides a descriptive account of how the UK government has responded to the crisis in Gaza, diplomatic efforts to improve access for humanitarian assistance and its approach to risk management in an emergency context.

It does not make an evaluative judgement on the effectiveness of UK aid but suggests six potential future lines of enquiry to be followed up either by ICAI or other scrutiny bodies such as the International Development Committee (IDC):

  • International humanitarian law: What are the circumstances in which the UK would state publicly its assessment as to whether Israel has violated international humanitarian law, and what would be the consequences of such an assessment?
  • Support for UNRWA: Given the critical role of UNRWA, what are the UK’s plans in relation to further funding?
  • Humanitarian access: What is the UK’s strategy for restoring adequate supplies of food and essential goods into Gaza and ensuring sustainable humanitarian access? Should the UK continue to support the development of a maritime corridor?
  • Human costs: What preparations is the UK making to respond to the long-term harms suffered by the population of Gaza, including war-related physical and mental injuries and the effects of gender-based violence?
  • Monitoring and transparency: What action is the UK taking to ensure that adequate monitoring arrangements are put in place for its Gaza operations, and that there is space for journalism and other independent scrutiny?
  • Reconstruction of Gaza: What advance planning is FCDO undertaking, with international partners, for the recovery and reconstruction of Gaza?
Read the information note

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