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The Challenges of Humanitarian Work in Gaza

In this episode of Eurasian Connectivity, Kamran Bokhari and Arnaud Quemin, the Middle East regional director of Mercy Corps, talk about the challenges of getting aid into Gaza, its evolving humanitarian situation, and the outlook for stability there after a cease-fire. 

Kamran Bokhari:

Hello everyone. This is Kamran Bokhari again, from The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. I’m the Senior Director for Eurasian Security and Prosperity at the Institute, and welcome to another episode of Eurasian Connectivity.

Today the topic of discussion is the situation in Gaza from a purely humanitarian point of view, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guest. My guest is Arnaud Quemin, who is a seasoned humanitarian leader with over two decades of experience in humanitarian efforts. He’s led large and diverse teams in Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. He is currently the Regional Director for Mercy Corps for the Middle East, North Africa, and European regions. He oversees a team of 1,200 staff across seven countries. He’s done a lot of work as country director for Syria. He was also interim country director for Iraq and Jordan.

Prior to Mercy Corps, he was with the European Commission’s, Humanitarian Aid Office, UNICEF, and other humanitarian agencies. He also understands very well active battle space situations, and he holds a master’s degree in military history from France.

So without further ado, I’m going to welcome Arnaud. Thank you so much for being on Eurasian Connectivity. Welcome.

Arnaud Quemin:

Thank you so much. Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here today.

Kamran Bokhari:

Thank you. So we’ll just jump right in to the conversation, and I’d like to start from the top and just give you the mic, and tell us about the work that Mercy Corps has been doing in Gaza. I’m pretty sure you were there prior to the outbreak of this war, but specifically, focusing on what has happened since October 7th.

Arnaud Quemin:

Sure. So we’ve been working in Gaza for the best part of three decades, and just prior the war, just to put some context, we had two types of programs there. We had, on one hand, humanitarian response where we were… it was a pretty mature humanitarian response with cash transfers, helping people to establish their livelihoods. We start agriculture activities. And then we had also a very different kind of program working with the tech sector, supporting highly trained Gazans to find jobs online, training them to access freelance platforms, be it for gigs. And then we’re also training them on coding competencies, and even we had a bit of a startup incubator mechanisms.

So all of these, of course when the war started, came to a halt, and it took us several months to reestablish a capacity to deliver aid. I mean, we continued cash transfer, but to bring goods inside Gaza was a serious challenge. So, it took us about until February to figure out a sustainable and reliable way of doing that through Egypt.

And then, basically, our operation focuses on delivering food aid, hygiene kits, shelter, and we just started psychosocial support, as well. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the offensive in Rafah, a lot of these supply chains were disrupted. So we had a serious drop in terms of the number of things we could send in. And now we are just about to be able to resend trucks, and that’s probably not going to happen before a couple of weeks.

Kamran Bokhari:

So that’s a really challenging environment. And I’d like to be able for you to unpack what, in your assessment, is the scale of the humanitarian situation. In the news, in the media, we often hear about almost 2 million people internally displaced. And the geography being very small. But since your people are on the ground, tell us a bit more granularly about the scale of the situation.

Arnaud Quemin:

Sure. I think the first thing you mentioned about the displacement is critical here. I mean, in our team, most of the staff has been displaced four or five times, including recently, where until the end of April, the majority of our staff had found a place to stay in Rafah, with our support, and then they had to be redisplaced again, and now they are in Nuseirat, Deir al-Balah, and Maghazi camp, for the most part. We have a few left in Gaza City, unfortunately. So displacement is a major challenge for people, of course, because it means they need to find a way to reestablish how to find food, find water, sleep at night, etcetera.

On top of that, I mean, the situation in Gaza is defined by a lack of natural access to any of the basic things you need to survive. So, as I just said, food is very hard to get by, and when you do, it’s very expensive. The water is extremely limited. We assess that for a humanitarian camp, usually you need to have between 10 and 15 liters of water per day, per person, to have basic access to water. At this point, we assess this between one and two liter per person, our staff explaining that they have to reuse the water they use to wash the dishes to do other things, because they don’t have any water to spare.

And of course, the conditions today are getting worse with the summer, which is starting, and the accumulation of trash around camp, also in the cities where people have been displaced. So it’s a very unique level of needs in a very high density.

Maybe the last point I can use to describe how extraordinary the situation is, is I don’t know if you heard about the process to assess the level of food security for populations. It’s called IPC, and there were two reports produced since the beginning of the war. The last one was in March, and there are five degrees in this scale. Five being the very catastrophic level of food insecurity. And it’s a very rare level of food insecurity, because usually you prevent this from happening. Today in Gaza, out of 2.2 million, the assessment established that 1.1 million people are in that IPC five situation.

To give you an idea of not of magnitude, this is the biggest concentration of people with IPC five scale. The second batch of people, the second caseload is in the hundred thousands in Sudan, at the moment. So Gaza has maybe 90% of people who are in this situation, at the moment.

Kamran Bokhari:

That is extremely dire. I mean, the contrast with the hundreds of thousands in Sudan and the situation in Gaza, that’s pretty extreme. So you mentioned something about food being expensive. So am I correct in assuming that there is still some level of what we would call normal commerce going on, in terms of people being able to buy food from stores, and whatnot? Or what is the ratio of people who are dependent on aid versus those who can buy food?

Arnaud Quemin:

So there are still vendors. Until recently, there were only canned food available. Very quickly, the perishable goods were gone. Recently, there were influx of vegetables. One of our staff said she saw a banana for the first time since October. And the prices fluctuate very widely. Typically, the perishable goods tended to be a bit less expensive, but they were reporting prices to move, sometimes multiply by seven or 10 within a matter of weeks. And so, it’s very prohibitive for a large part of the population. So we try to bring things in to decrease this tension on the markets.

And on the other hand, we also do cash transfer to people we assess with very high vulnerability, who cannot go and attend to distributions. So that’s something that, of course, does not work as intended, and the markets are very far from functioning as they should.

Kamran Bokhari:

So how many staff members do you have? And I know you mentioned earlier that you have some in Nuseirat that you were recently displaced from Rafah, and you have some people in Gaza City. But what is the combined strength, and how have you been able to distribute that staff across the Gaza Strip?

Arnaud Quemin:

So we started the crisis with 60 staff from Gaza. At this point, we have 35 left. The others left Gaza over the past few months. It looks like now it’s fairly stable. Those who wanted to leave because their family was at risk managed to do so. But we also work with local partners who, of course, work in sync with us and increase our capacity.

At the moment the area we cover is very limited because we cannot have access to the north in a reliable way. So our distributions used to take place mostly in Rafah and the surrounding areas. Now it’s moving towards these middle areas.

Kamran Bokhari:

So with your understanding of… Overlaying your understanding of military history along with your decades of experience in humanitarian relief, what does it really look like? How difficult is it, a: in general, to be in active battle spaces, providing that kind of humanitarian relief, and at scale? And then, specifically, if you can contrast that with your recent experience in Gaza.

Arnaud Quemin:

So the question you ask is touching the heart of the challenge we are dealing with, because humanitarian principles, international humanitarian law, but also the whole architecture that surrounds that, is designed to create a space that is insulated from the military logic that prevails in a conflict. And in theory, the humanitarian actors are provided access to the civilians that are caught in the middle of the situations, to provide necessary aid.

We are at a point where this is not functioning anymore. Gaza is maybe the last illustration of that. There were some in the past, but I think that’s the most extreme version of that, where humanitarian aid is seen as counter to the military logic, and as a result, is part of the elements that are used for the negotiation, which is completely in opposition to the humanitarian principles. Humanitarian aid should not be conditional … it should be driven by the level of needs and by the necessity of the people who are affected by it.

So, the result of this is we are in a very unique level of challenge, and when we try to make our point to the parties to the conflict, we are not engaged and heard in a way that should be. We are not doing these points around, like, we need to have access to aid in a way that is gratuitous or irresponsible. It’s, on the contrary, something that is very driven by the seriousness and the gravity of the needs that we are witnessing. Unfortunately, the humanitarian logic is not prevailing, at the moment.

Kamran Bokhari:

So that leads me to my next question, which is that surely the parties to the conflict in any area, and with your experience in Syria, there were many parties to the conflict, different militias operating in different areas at the height of the war. Here it’s probably much more simpler because you have the IDF on one hand and Hamas fighters on the other. But what level of cooperation, if you will, or facilitation, are you getting from both sides?

Arnaud Quemin:

I mean, from the very early stage we were very clear that we were not interested in aligning ourself with either side. We were only concerned with the situation of the people that were caught in the middle. So we worked before in Gaza, and we had to deal with the difficulty of remaining principled in a context that was controlled by Hamas. And we were very strict on sticking to our principles, because we knew that if we were not to do that, we would be quickly disqualified as a humanitarian actor.

Today, our program comes from the other side, because Hamas, at this point, has, as far as we are concerned in terms of our experience of distribution, has not been engaged in our activities since the beginning of the war. They are probably in the same space where everybody operates, but they have not shown any, at least to us, we have not had any case where we had to negotiate access to people who are in need.

On the Israeli side, it’s more complicated because as I explained, I think the fact that humanitarian access is considered as part of the logic of the operation to maintain pressure on Gaza, goes against our mandate to deliver aid. So we’ve put as many cases as we could to the Israelis, but also, I mean, it’s not us individually, because it’s as part of the humanitarian system and with the support of our donors to make the case to Israel that it’s critical to ensure that this happens.

There were a lot of small limited steps that enabled us to regain some degree of access, but we’re very far from where it should be. And I think that has been the major issue we face. We are often presented with the little victories on number of trucks or reopening a pipe for water here or power there. But when you look at the big picture, there is no way to consider this as acceptable.

What I was describing earlier is an extremely dire humanitarian situation that has no justification in our modern world, so whoever is able to provide access should feel obliged to do so.

Kamran Bokhari:

So, I want to ask you about even in areas that where normal governance has collapsed, and for a variety of reasons, you still have some semblance of authority, if you will, to where there are local leaders, local governing structures, and whatnot, and of course they vary from place to place given the severity of the conflict. But what is, in your opinion, the situation in Gaza? Because on one hand, one gets a sense that the Israeli defense forces that are doing their operations, trying to target Hamas, in the process, tens of thousands have died. But is there any sort of local authority that can be discernible? Are there people who are in authority? I mean, obviously, Hamas used to administer this area, but now because they’re in a state of war and you assume that they are underground or engaged more in combat than administering day-to-day governance. Could you shed light on that situation?

Arnaud Quemin:

I can up to a certain point, because yes, I don’t think we’ve had any engagement with Hamas as a governing entity ever since the beginning of the war. And even maybe in general. At this moment, there are some areas like in the north where we don’t operate at the moment, but it sounds like there are extremely low level of order, which is connected to the lack of access, and the more scarcity you deal with, the more desperate people are and the more extreme their behavior becomes. And that’s where you had a lot of these cases of stampedes or people rushing to distributions, and that leads to tragedies.

In the areas where we operate, we deal with better. What’s left of the local order is usually what you would describe as community level, like neighborhood communities and committees that are basically what happens in this kind of situations. You find a way to interact with a committee through a few representatives. And this has helped us triangulate our own assessments of the situation and the needs in specific neighborhoods to make sure the information we’re gathering was reliable. But there’s nothing like a big picture governance that would help us have a broader view of the whole strip.

We also work with the U.N. and the other NGOs to coordinate, in terms of the information we get. Recently, we’re coordinating with peer organizations to share the burden of assessing the situation of the people who are in the southern part of Gaza, and so that helps us also have a multidimensional perspective of the context.

Kamran Bokhari:

So Arnaud, what level of support is Mercy Corps and your partners, and I assume you have a wide network of actors that are engaged in humanitarian relief in Gaza. What kind of support are they getting from large influential actors like the United States government, the European Union, other regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and most specifically, Egypt, considering that it’s the only country that actually has a land border with Gaza, the other being Israel. But as you know, Israel is one of the belligerents in this situation. So what kind of international support from sovereign actors are you getting?

Arnaud Quemin:

I mean, the support we receive is, so far has been largely through the usual institutional donors who have a dedicated humanitarian branch. So ECHO for the European Union, BHA for the U.S. government, who were supporting us before. And then when the war started, scale up the budgets we had to increase our operations.

The goal of donors, I know are sending a lot of goods there. We were actually in discussion with some of them to see if there were ways to collaborate, and maybe that will happen in the coming months. This is still up in the air.

And then, the Egyptian government has been mostly there to facilitate or enable the transit of a lot of these goods in through some parts of its territory. And I think that’s probably already a lot to deal with, given the amount of trucks that had to go through and some planes flying into el-Arish.

And so that has been a very complicated operation, and the Egyptian government has been supportive of that, or at least making it possible. So I would say that’s probably the main contribution to this context.

Yeah, humanitarian response are multifaceted, and in the product of an ecosystem where every actor has a different way of contributing, if it’s well coordinated, you can have a very powerful and hopefully efficient way of delivering aid. And this has been something that has been pretty unusual, as well, because when the war started, all the existing coordination mechanisms had to reset and readjust to the new system going through Egypt, and with a different set of actors in some cases. But I think we are reaching the point where this is starting to work again, and hopefully that will gain in capacity over the coming months.

Kamran Bokhari:

We’ve seen an ebb and flow of the availability of humanitarian aid, and you mentioned this earlier, as well. What does the supply chain look like at a high altitude, from a 30,000-foot view, in terms of you and your organization and your partners being able to reach as many people on the ground as possible? What does that supply chain look like?

Arnaud Quemin:

It’s a very complicated one. I don’t think I can go into nearly enough detail without boring your audience. But to give you a sense of the complexity, when the war started, in the first week, we immediately initiated different processes to map out what were the ways to get in. We were not registered in Egypt, so that added an additional challenge for us, because we were used to working Gaza through Israel. So we had to find ways to either procure goods in Jordan, send them by plane to el-Arish, and then hop on a truck, usually made available by the Egyptian Red Crescent, and sent to Rafah where there would be a queue, and then they would be sent to Israel, where they would have a security check. And if its security check is positive, they would either cross directly from Kerem Shalom, or will be sent back to Rafah to cross from there. And that’s a simplified way of explaining it.

But within these broad parameters, we had six to seven variations of that. And I think as we grew, in terms of the experiments we did with these different versions of the supply lines, we now are down to two or three, depending on the types of trade off we wanted to make in terms of how much we wanted to pay to have something that goes fast, or if it was less urgent and we could plan for the longer term, we could decrease the cost of this supply chain. So there were many parameters to play with to adjust to the type of needs we wanted to answer.

Kamran Bokhari:

Thank you for going into that. So, Arnaud, one more question about the situation of combat. In your estimate, we are now seeing sort of the fatality rate of among civilians decline. In the initial months, it shot up, and we quickly reached unfortunately into the tens of thousands of people killed. But is this because we have a situation where the war is more limited, and is that helping with, or facilitating your humanitarian efforts or is that due to some other logic?

And do you think that as time is going by, we’re still far from a ceasefire, we don’t know when that will happen. It’s a very complicated situation, but in the absence of a ceasefire, would you say your people are finding it a little more better, in terms of ease of doing what they’re supposed to be doing, providing for that relief and humanitarian aid?

Arnaud Quemin:

Absolutely not. At this moment, with the level of challenge we are facing, and the situation we’re dealing with on the ground, and the disruption brought in by the Rafah offensive, the humanitarian response, it’s at a shockingly low level of capacity, given that we’re eight month into that crisis.

The reference to the number of casualties, I mean, I read the numbers like everybody. Mercy Corps is not set up to have reliable assessments of whether the casualties are going up or down. So we’re not going to pronounce ourselves about this, but one thing I tried to highlight to a couple of people I spoke to recently is the fact that we tend to be very jaded, considering the fact that the cease-fire is unlikely to come through, as a almost inevitability. This is something we cannot really… we cannot resign ourself to the fact that the cease-fire might not happen right now, because…

And when I speak to my colleagues in Gaza, if I tell them, “Well, you might need to deal with this for another seven months because that’s what the authorities say,” that would be psychologically devastating. The fact that we are still into this, and they are still struggling to get access to the very most basic services, food, water, health, is something that is mind-numbing, and so we should not resign ourselves to the fact that this needs to end as quickly as possible.

And maybe a last point related to your point around casualties, we are dealing with a population that is becoming increasingly fragile because of when you don’t have enough food or water, maybe you can survive, but you become much more fragile, and if something hits you, the chances for people to die is much higher. And one of our big concern is that we are not seeing how bad things can go very quickly if there was an epidemic of cholera or whatever, or even anything that would tip a lot of people just behind the level of resilience, and that that would turn them into people who would be either sick or dying.

So the fact that this number seems to slow down, and thankfully, if it’s because there is more concern around targeting, great, but this should not hide the fact that any month or any week that passes without improvement is actually increasing the risk of a major tragedy.

Kamran Bokhari:

So for the benefit of our listeners, to follow up on your excellent point that you just made, what you’re basically saying is that if we take the reports or the statements that are coming out in terms of how much longer this war can last, we’re hearing from months to the end of the year, there are varied estimates being put out there, that could really, really worsen the situation. So, if you had to sort of forecast what the humanitarian situation would look like if this situation… so we’re now in the middle of June, so let’s say, fall arrives, we’re in September, October, what do you foresee as the situation? Obviously, it’ll be exacerbated, but could you describe it? I am asking a very tough question of you.

Arnaud Quemin:

No, it’s a very tough question, and I would rather not engage in this, because anything I can tell you would look like over the top and dramatic. I think that the figures I just quoted earlier should be enough for people to picture how things would look like if we were go through three more months of that.

And as I said, it can really move very quickly in a way that does not seem to be possible today. The sense of normalization or stability that might be emerging for some people is completely unwarranted.

And that’s the main reason why you may tend to continue to make these very strong calls for a change of situation, because it seems like the nature of the news system, the media system, is that, or even information is that when people hear bad news, if they hear it the first time, there will be an element of shock. But if this bad news is repeated over weeks, month, the sense of urgency disappears.

But at the same time, people who are on the ground are suffering much more every day, and the situation gets worse. They’re not in a institution where they can build positive coping mechanisms. Any ways they adapt to these new challenges is something that is tapping into their reserve, their assets, whatever is left of their surrounding to survive. And so that’s a very dangerous situation.

Kamran Bokhari:

No, I thank you for shedding light on that, because one of the hopes that we have is through this conversation and conversations like these ongoing ones is that to raise awareness that this situation is untenable and it’s increasingly becoming dangerous, and this cannot continue for too long.

We’re running out of time and I have two more questions that are actually related and would love to get your thoughts on it. Again, looking ahead and looking sort of at a more optimistic scenario. So let’s say a cease-fire that is sustainable, that isn’t sort of time limited and temporary, takes hold at some point, because all wars have to come to an end at some point, and this can’t go on indefinitely. So how will a cease-fire enable your organization’s efforts?

And then, of course, there’s the post-conflict reconstruction period, and the scale, if you look at the report and the footage of destruction and devastation in the Gaza Strip, it’s going to be one Herculean effort needed to restore some semblance of normalcy, in terms of infrastructure, availability of services, just the basic civic services of power, water dispensation, and some semblance of authority.

So give me a sense of how you see your organization’s efforts evolving once we are no longer in an active battle space environment.

Arnaud Quemin:

Sure. I mean, a ceasefire would basically translate immediately in a much better access to Gaza. So, it means we do a much better job at crisscrossing the Strip to assess the needs, understand the top priority that need to be addressed, area by area, and bring the kind of equipment that are required to start developing a very robust response to delivering water or food. So that will be a first phase of stabilization, where we would have to take stock of the actual situation of the population, and in coordination with the other organization, really systematically develop the solutions that are needed. And we’ve done that in many contexts, except that we’re prevented from doing that right now due to the lack of cease-fire.

And then, of course, like any form of humanitarian response, it matures. So at the moment, for instance, water is largely supplied through a few pipes that are coming from Israel, and bottles, and a few desalination plants that are really not enough. So we would have to scale up these systems so that we can have something that is much more efficient and sustainable.

And then, of course, as times would evolve, we would be able to start, I mean, hopefully clear things up and look for ways to restart. I mean, we’re not talking about the day after here, obviously. Look at what economic recovery would look like.

And maybe just a point here is that the program, the programs I was referring to at the beginning, with these people working online, freelancing, we’ve had a number of people who are part of these programs reach out recently saying, “Is there any way for you to reestablish access to these platforms, because given the difficulty of surviving in Gaza, I would really be keen to go back online and work?” So we are looking for solutions, very small scale at the start, but to see if it’s something that can even happen, and with the hope that this would be the template for something that would be able to scale up very quickly should the cease-fire happen, and that we would move into a form of early recovery.

Kamran Bokhari:

Thank you, Arnaud. I would love to continue this conversation. I still have so many questions, but unfortunately, we’re out of time, so we’ll have to leave it here. But once again, thank you so much for coming on Eurasian Connectivity and enlightening our listeners on what is unfolding, the challenges of humanitarian relief in Gaza, and the scale of challenge that lies ahead. We wish you and your organization and your colleagues the very best, and hopefully the situation becomes better and we could move to a more improved circumstances. Obviously, it’ll be relative. But thank you all for the very hard work that you do.

Folks, that was Arnaud Quemin, who is the regional director, I’m sorry, for the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe at Mercy Corps. And you are listening to a conversation on how Mercy Corps and the wider ecosystem of humanitarian organizations are operating in Gaza, and what lies ahead.

This is Kamran Bokhari, signing off for now. Stay tuned and we’ll have more episodes for you in the future. Thank you and take care.

Arnaud Quemin:

Thank you.

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