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ICJ orders Israel to allow aid into Gaza as UNRWA workers struggle with looming famine

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The International Court of Justice last week ordered Israel to allow unrestricted access of food aid in Gaza, where they say famine is setting in. It's direct pushback of Israel's claim that it is not blocking aid deliveries. The Israeli government says aid is being stolen by Hamas, and weapons are smuggled in via aid trucks. Aid organizations say those are excuses, and Israel hinders the delivery of aid, which has put Palestinians in crisis. Chris Gunness was a spokesperson for UNRWA, the U.N. agency responsible for delivering aid to Palestinians, from 2007 to 2020. He's been talking to people inside of the organization since the beginning of the crisis and says that UNRWA is best suited to distribute aid across the strip.

But the U.S. and others have paused their funding of UNRWA after Israel brought allegations against 12 UNRWA workers, claiming that they took part in the Hamas-led October 7 attack that left 1,200 people dead. Those claims are being investigated by the U.N.'s internal oversight office, and their report is due out next month. Aid organizations are still having to find a way to get much-needed supplies to Palestinians. Chris Gunness laid out what happens after aid trucks cross into Gaza.

CHRIS GUNNESS: Well, as far as the process for crossing over, UNRWA notifies the Israeli army, a thing called COGAT, the department which looks after aid going in and out of Gaza. And they have to notify what's on the trucks, how many trucks there are and what time they're going to be there. And generally, what's been happening since the 7 of October is that UNRWA is being told the day before that there are problems. There's no clear list of what is contraband, what isn't allowed in, what is allowed in. And what we're seeing as a result of that is the number of trucks cut from about 500 before the 7 of October to about 100 to 120, 130 today. It's nothing like enough, and yet the Israelis have explicitly said that UNRWA cannot have trucks and aid convoys into the north.

RASCOE: So how does an aid convoy get inspected by Israeli forces at the border?

GUNNESS: Basically, it's a joint Egyptian and Israeli effort. The trucks are searched, and what happens is that if one single object is found - for example, not long ago they found scissors, which were meant for cutting babies' hair. And it was deemed that these scissors were dual-use, and therefore, the whole truck had to be unloaded. And in the end, the truck was not allowed in.

RASCOE: Can I ask you a bit on - you know, Hamas is the governing body in Gaza. It seems like aid organizations would have to work with them. So can you talk to me about that?

GUNNESS: Yeah, so they have. And before the 7 of October, the U.N. position and UNRWA's position was very clear, handed down by the late Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and this was a response to Hamas winning the elections in January 2006. And what Kofi Annan said is that in order to implement humanitarian mandates, contact with Hamas up to and including ministerial contact was permissible. So if you wanted to deliver pharmaceuticals to a hospital, UNRWA would have to phone up the hospital, the director, say, expect a truck. Tell the guy on the gate to let the truck through. So that was a matter of the practical implementation of humanitarian mandates. And what Mr. Annan said was political contacts were completely banned.

And that was the situation up until the 7 of October. Then Israel declared war on Hamas. And so the fighters in Hamas, I presume, have either been killed or have gone underground. So it's rather disingenuous for people, particularly those who are waging a war against Hamas and blocking aid going in, to say we can't let aid in because Hamas are going to steal it, or it's going to go to Hamas.

RASCOE: Well, let me ask you a question because in 2009, UNRWA reported that the Hamas police force broke into a warehouse and did, in fact, seize aid supplies. Could anything about Israel's worries about Hamas stealing aid be legitimate?

GUNNESS: Well, I was the U.N. spokesman during the precise event...

RASCOE: Yeah.

GUNNESS: ...That you just...

RASCOE: Yes.

GUNNESS: ...Described, and we came out very publicly and condemned this. And we demanded that all the aid was given back. And guess what? It all was. Now, on the wider question about Israel's concerns over Hamas - first of all, let's step back and look at what is happening here. A government that's imposed a very tight aid blockade against an area where mass starvation is now breaking out is now raising problems with people stealing that aid. I mean, let's get a moral handle on what's happening here. Maybe if you allowed in humane levels of aid, there wouldn't be any looting, there'd be more orderly distributions, and the whole question of the aid being diverted in any way would simply go away. There's a starving population, and when the odd aid convoy gets in, of course there are problems because people are utterly desperate. Children are dying of starvation.

RASCOE: That's Chris Gunness, former spokesperson for UNRWA. Thank you so much for joining us.

GUNNESS: Thank you very much for having me on your show.

RASCOE: For more coverage and analysis and for differing views on the conflict, go to npr.org/mideastupdates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.