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As Gaza strains under a food crisis, some Israeli protesters are trying to block aid

Israeli border police watch over protesters attempting to block the road at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, where Israel inspects trucks and allows them to cross into the Gaza Strip.
Maya Levin for NPR
Israeli border police watch over protesters attempting to block the road at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, where Israel inspects trucks and allows them to cross into the Gaza Strip.

KEREM SHALOM, Israel — From some of these parts, Gaza is a stone's throw away. If you look across the vast farm fields, you can see the buildings of Gaza rising from the horizon. Sometimes, you can also see plumes of smoke in the sky, a reminder that just a few miles from here, a war is raging.

A group of around 100 protesters have set up on the road leading into Gaza, just a couple of hundred feet from a row of aid trucks that sit idle in front of a tall concrete barricade. Israeli soldiers stand on a hill, watching from a distance, as the protesters wave Israeli flags.

"Don't give aid to rapists," they chant. "Don't give aid to butchers."

Shortly after the war between Israel and Hamas started last October, aid groups warned that the population of Gaza is extremely vulnerable. In December, the World Food Program saidthe whole population of Gaza — more than 2 million people — was facing a food crisis. And when the Famine Review Committee, an international group of experts who analyze hunger, looked at data collected during the ceasefire in November, they warned if more aid did not reach the Gaza Strip, the situation could tip into famine.

More recently, the U.N. relief agency in Gaza said they had already found pockets of starvation and hunger in northern Gaza, where an aid truck had not arrived since January 23.

Protesters argue the militant group Hamas diverts humanitarian aid and instead of helping civilians it helps to fuel the war.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Protesters argue the militant group Hamas diverts humanitarian aid and instead of helping civilians it helps to fuel the war.
As the military has blocked access to some border crossings, protesters have moved around the country. Some right-wing protesters tried to block the port in Ashdod, Israel.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
As the military has blocked access to some border crossings, protesters have moved around the country. Some right-wing protesters tried to block the port in Ashdod, Israel.

But over the past couple of weeks, a small movement has emerged in Israel that is intent on stopping aid from reaching Gaza. At the Kerem Shalom border crossing, they've thrown themselves in front of trucks. For three days in a row one week, they managed to stop all trucks from crossing. When the Israeli government ordered the military to clear the roads, protesters moved north to the port of Ashdod, where they blockaded other trucks.

On a recent Monday, they gathered once again across the border from Gaza.

"The people don't want this aid to get to Gaza, because it doesn't help anything," said Rachel Touitou, 32. "We want this war to end and we want Hamas to be gone."

Many of the protesters in the crowd spoke of Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza strip and launched an attack on Oct. 7th that killed some 1,200 people in Israel, in the same breath that they speak about the Palestinian population. When asked by a reporter if she felt no compassion for the civilians in Gaza, Touitou shrugged.

"Should I have mercy on the children of today who will be the terrorists of tomorrow?" Touitou said.

Like a freight train

At the beginning of this war, the Israeli government used similar language.

"I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip," Israel's Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant said. "There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly. This is the ISIS of Gaza."

Relentless air bombardment followed, displacing nearly the entire population and killing almost 27,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's health ministry. At the same time, Israel started limiting the number of trucks that were allowed into Gaza.

The international community began advocating for more aid and the Israeli government softened its language and lifted the complete siege. The military denied there was hunger in Gaza and that it was still limiting aid.

While the protests have been small, they have been diverse — bringing together the religious and secular.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
While the protests have been small, they have been diverse — bringing together the religious and secular.

But Miriam Marmur, of Gisha, an Israeli organization that advocates for the freedom of movement of Palestinians, says the data shows otherwise.

"We recently reached the mark of over 10,000 truckloads of aid that has gone into Gaza since the war began on Oct. 7th, and that is more or less equivalent to what's been going in per month prior to the war," she said.

The Israeli military did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Israel has blamed aid groups for the bottleneck. The United Nations' humanitarian agency says the Israeli military is allowing only a fraction of aid missions to make their way through checkpoints. Sometimes, the U.N. says, aid convoys are allowed in only to find out the routes designated by the Israeli military "proved to be unpassable."

Marmur says Israel also adds to the delays by instituting a host of limitations on what kinds of goods can come in, where they have to be bought, and even where they should be transported through.

"All of these things impact aid operations and they impact a person in Gaza who needs food," she said.

To Alex de Waal, a professor at Tufts University who studies mass starvation, this all sounds eerily familiar.

Israeli protesters attempt to block the Kerem Shalom border crossing.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Israeli protesters attempt to block the Kerem Shalom border crossing.
The attempts to block aid from entering Gaza have had limited success. While protesters, have managed to shut down some border crossings, authorities have found ways around the blockades.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
The attempts to block aid from entering Gaza have had limited success. While protesters, have managed to shut down some border crossings, authorities have found ways around the blockades.

During its civil war from 2020 to 2022, Ethiopia erected a de facto blockade on the region of Tigray. For two years, the government insisted that there was no hunger in Tigray and that its forces were not stopping aid trucks from entering the war zone.

The numbers showed otherwise, the international community protested and experts warned over and over of an imminent famine.

But month after month, trucks full of aid languished on highways. Ethiopia turned off the internet and phone lines while its military laid siege to the region, destroying health facilities, infrastructure and schools.

The international community was incapable of stopping it and in the end, scientists estimate that some 300,000 Ethiopians died of hunger or disease caused by malnutrition.

"One thing that was sort of learned by those who inflict famine is that you can get away with it," De Waal said.

And he says that is critical because hunger is different from warfare. If the bombs stop, the killing stops. But even if food begins to flow into an area under siege, people do not stop dying.

"If you cause that much damage to the infrastructure required to sustain life, it's going to be quite some time before people stop dying," he said.

He compares it to stopping a speeding freight train. Indeed, 15 months after the war ended in Ethiopia, a population made vulnerable by the blockade is being ravaged by drought. Hundreds have died of starvation in recent months.

De Waal fears the situation in Gaza has the potential to be just as bad. He notes that the group of global experts tasked with determining whether a region is suffering famine is issuing similar warnings. In both cases, early on in the conflict, they warned that nearly half a million people were "facing catastrophic acute food insecurity conditions," meaning those people are at risk of starving to death.

'The only card we have to play'

In Kerem Shalom, Noga Alfassa crisscrosses the field with a poster-sized picture of her aunt hanging from her neck. Her aunt, Maya Goren, 56, was kidnapped by Hamas during the Oct. 7th attacks. Alfassa says her uncle was killed that same day and Goren was badly injured. The government has told her that Goren has died but Hamas is still holding her body.

"I am here not because I want to starve a nation," she said almost in a whisper.

Back in November, she said, Hamas agreed to release hostages in exchange for more humanitarian aid.

"The only card we have to play here is that of humanitarian aid," she said.

As Israeli police keep watch, some protesters pray at a field in Kerem Shalom in southern Israel, just across the border from Gaza.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
As Israeli police keep watch, some protesters pray at a field in Kerem Shalom in southern Israel, just across the border from Gaza.

It is painful, said Alfassa, to think that her actions here could hurt a family in Gaza. But she said she's also seen images on TV of Palestinians celebrating Israeli losses.

If a blockade inflicts just enough suffering for them to reject Hamas, she says, the blockade will be worth it.

"A bit more suffering now," she says. "May just stop more suffering in the future."

Freelance producer Eve Guterman contributed to this story.

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

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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