UN tells Israel it will suspend aid operations across Gaza without improved safety

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior U.N. officials have warned Israel that they will suspend the world body's aid operations across Gaza unless Israel acts urgently to better protect humanitarian workers, two U.N. officials said Tuesday. The ultimatum is the latest in a series of U.N. steps demanding Israel do more to safeguard aid operations from strikes by its forces and to curb growing lawlessness hindering humanitarian workers.

A U.N. letter sent to Israeli officials this month said Israel must provide U.N. workers with a way to communicate directly with Israeli forces on the ground in Gaza, among other steps, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations with Israeli officials.

The U.N. officials said there has been no final decision on suspending operations across Gaza and that talks with the Israelis were ongoing.

U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric told reporters in New York that U.N. humanitarian coordinator Muhannad Hadi had written to the Israeli military on June 17 and the U.N.’s undersecretary for security, Gilles Michaud, spoke with Israeli military officials Monday.

Dujarric called conditions for aid workers in the territory “increasingly intolerable.” But he said the U.N. was “pushing all its contacts” with the Israelis to resolve the problems and noted that “the U.N. will not turn its back on the people of Gaza.”

U.S. officials are talking with the U.N. and Israeli military to try to help resolve U.N. concerns, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Tuesday. Asked if the U.S. had received any commitments from Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who is visiting this week to speak with Biden administration officials, Miller said, “we went through a number of specific things that we want to see resolved when it comes to the humanitarian situation and got an assurance to continue to work on those."

The Israeli army declined to comment on the U.N. warning, and the Israeli defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The army claims it is trying to facilitate aid shipments and accuses Hamas of disrupting them, noting Tuesday that the militant group fired a projectile at the humanitarian route near a UNICEF aid convoy.

Israel has previously acknowledged some military strikes on humanitarian workers, including an April attack that killed seven workers with the World Central Kitchen, and has denied allegations of others.

Citing security concerns, the U.N. World Food Program has already suspended aid delivery from a U.S.-built pier designed to bring food and other emergency supplies to Palestinians who are facing starvation amid more than eight months of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

U.N. and other aid officials have complained for months that they have no way to communicate quickly and directly with Israeli forces on the ground, in contrast with the usual procedures — known as “deconfliction” — employed in conflict zones globally to protect aid workers from attack by combatants. Relief groups say Israel's procedure for coordinating aid work requires them to speak instead with an agency within the military.

In its letter to Israeli officials, the U.N. cited communication and protective equipment for aid workers as among the commitments that it wanted Israel to make good on for its aid operations in Gaza to continue, the two U.N. officials say.

Miller said taking aid from trucks and other criminal attacks were the biggest problems blocking aid delivery within Gaza right now, rather than strikes on aid workers by Israeli forces or commandeering of aid convoys by Hamas.

“And so we have been working with the U.N. and Israel to try to find a solution to that problem,” including trying to ensure that aid workers “have radios and other communications equipment so they can communicate with each other and safely move around Gaza," Miller told reporters.

The U.N. and other humanitarian organizations also complain of increasing crime in Gaza and have urged Israel to do more to improve overall security from attack and theft. The lawlessness has stymied what Israel said was a daily pause in fighting to allow aid into southern Gaza, with humanitarian officials saying groups of gunmen are regularly blocking convoys, holding drivers at gunpoint and rifling through their cargo.

On top of that, “missiles hit our premises, despite being deconflicted,” said Steve Taravella, a spokesman for the World Food Program, one of the main organizations working on humanitarian delivery in Gaza. He was not one of those confirming the U.N. threat to suspend operations across the territory. “WFP warehouses have been caught in the crossfire twice in the past two weeks.”

Humanitarian officials said conditions for civilians and aid workers have worsened since early May, when Israel launched an offensive in the southern city of Rafah, where many aid groups had their base. The operation has crippled what had been a main border crossing for food and other aid.

Aid workers trying to get shipments through the main remaining crossing, Kerem Shalom, face risks from fighting, damaged roads, unexploded ordnance and Israeli restrictions, including spending five or more hours a day waiting at checkpoints, Taravella said.

“Restoring order is crucial for an effective humanitarian response to meet soaring needs. U.N. agencies and others need a safe environment to be able to access people and scale up,” he said.

Israeli officials say the problems at Kerem Shalom are a matter of poor U.N. logistics.

Separately, the United Nations has suspended cooperation with the U.S.-built pier since June 9, a day after the Israeli military used the area around the pier in a hostage rescue that killed more than 270 Palestinians.

While U.S. and Israeli officials said no part of the pier itself was used in the raid that rescued four hostages taken by Hamas, U.N. officials said any perception in Gaza that the project was used in the Israeli military operation may endanger their aid work.

The U.N. has finished a security assessment of the pier operation following the raid but has not yet made a decision on resuming delivery of supplies arriving by sea, according to a humanitarian official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not yet been released publicly.

Speaking to reporters traveling with a U.S. delegation to a gathering of defense chiefs in Botswana on Tuesday, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development expressed optimism that aid deliveries from the pier would eventually resume.

“I think it’s a question of when the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) can provide, and the government of Israel can provide, the assurances that the U.N. is seeking on deconfliction and security right now,” said Isobel Coleman, deputy administrator of USAID, which has been working with the World Food Program on aid distribution from the pier.


Magdy reported from Cairo. AP reporters Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Melanie Lidman in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Lolita C. Baldor in Gaborone, Botswana contributed.