The primary UN relief agency in Gaza reports that Israel is blocking food supplies for 1.1 million Palestinians.

The primary UN relief agency in Gaza reports that Israel is blocking food supplies for 1.1 million Palestinians.

Israel has implemented financial limitations on the primary United Nations organization that offers assistance in the Gaza Strip. This action resulted in the prevention of a shipment of food intended for 1.1 million Palestinians in the war-torn area, according to the agency’s director on Friday.

The limitations worsened a conflict between Israel and UNRWA. The organization’s operations have been put at risk due to Israeli claims that some of its employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attack that sparked Israel’s conflict in Gaza. These allegations have caused key donor countries, such as the U.S., to pause their financial support for the U.N. agency and raised uncertainty about its future.

Philippe Lazzarini, the director of UNRWA, stated on Friday that a shipment of food donated by Turkey has been stagnant in the Israeli city of Ashdod for several weeks. According to the agency, the contractor they collaborate with in Israel received a notification from customs officials instructing them not to handle any goods for UNRWA.

The delay has resulted in 1,049 cargo containers filled with rice, flour, chickpeas, sugar, and cooking oil being unable to reach their destination. This amount of food is sufficient to feed 1.1 million individuals for a month. Unfortunately, approximately 25% of families in Gaza are currently experiencing severe hunger.

On Friday, the World Food Program issued a warning that Gaza may experience famine by May. According to the U.N. food agency, a famine is declared when there is a 30% rate of malnourishment among children, one-fifth of households are facing severe food shortages, and two out of every 10,000 people are dying from hunger or malnutrition.

In reaction to the October 7th attack by Hamas, Israel initiated a war and enforced a blockade on Gaza. The attack resulted in the death of 1,200 individuals and the taking of 250 hostages. This conflict has caused a dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, with only a small amount of aid being allowed in each day.

The state of Israel has consistently criticized UNRWA, claiming that the organization either tolerates or works with Hamas and prolongs the ongoing Palestinian refugee crisis, which has been ongoing for 76 years. UNRWA, which provides aid to approximately 6 million Palestinians who were displaced during the conflict surrounding the establishment of Israel in 1948, refutes these accusations. However, the tensions have escalated even further after Israel’s recent allegations.

The communications director for the agency, Juliette Touma, stated that the bank account held by UNWRA with Bank Leumi, which has been in place for many years, was frozen this week. Furthermore, Touma revealed that the Israeli customs authorities have informed the agency that they will no longer receive tax exemptions.

On Thursday, Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister of Israel, stated on Twitter that the country will not provide tax advantages to individuals who assist terrorist activities.

Smotrich, an extreme right-wing supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not reply to a comment request.

The agency has been able to reroute other aid shipments through Port Said in Egypt, but Lazzarini warned Friday that the holdup means further difficulties in the already challenging task of aid distribution to Gaza. About 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced by the war.

UNWRA is the main provider of aid to Palestinians in Gaza, but Israeli bombardment and combat between Israel and Hamas has made much of the territory too dangerous for aid convoys to cross. For the last two weeks, the agency has been unable to deliver aid to around 300,000 Palestinians estimated to still be in the northern half of Gaza, where the World Food Program says food insecurity is the worst.

Lazzarini stated that the attention has been directed towards aiding the 1.3 million displaced Palestinians living in temporary camps in Rafah, a city near the Egyptian border. The agency relies on assistance from local law enforcement to escort aid convoys and prevent theft. However, this task has become more difficult as Israeli airstrikes continue to target areas within the city.

According to Lazzarini, airstrikes in the city have resulted in the deaths of eight police officers in the past four days. As a result, the police are now hesitant to assist the agency. Lazzarini also mentioned that three of the strikes occurred near a UNWRA clinic. The Israeli media has characterized the presence of police escorts as a ploy by Hamas to intercept aid supplies for their own purposes.

Lazzarini stated that the law enforcement officers the organization collaborates with were not associated with extremist organizations. Touma explained that the presence of police escorts was crucial in order to deter individuals from hurling rocks at the convoy and trying to pilfer aid from them.

Last month, Israel accused 12 aid agency workers of being involved in the Hamas attacks on October 7th in southern Israel. As a result, multiple countries have suspended funding totaling $440 million, nearly half of the agency’s yearly budget.

There are currently two U.N. investigations in progress, with one being an independent review that was recently announced. The review, led by a former French foreign minister, will specifically examine the agency’s efforts to maintain neutrality and address any accusations of failure to do so. The team led by Colonna will assess the effectiveness of the system and suggest potential improvements.

On Friday, Lazzarini stated that he promptly terminated the employees, rather than putting them on hold, without conducting a prior investigation of the accusations against them. By the time the allegations were brought to light, two of the workers had already died. Lazzarini explained that due to the excessive pressure on the organization and the challenging circumstances, it was not feasible to further investigate the workers.

He stated, “Given the organization is facing intense and unattractive criticism, I could not afford to take any chances… I could have suspended them, but instead I chose to terminate their employment.”