Feb 24, 2024 - World

U.S. officials warn: Gaza "is turning into Mogadishu"

Civilians launch search and rescue operations for Palestinians killed during the attack of the Israeli army on a vehicle belonging to the Palestinian police

Civilians launch search and rescue operations for Palestinians killed during the attack of the Israeli army on a vehicle belonging to the Palestinian police. Photo: Ahmed Zaqout via Getty Images

The Biden administration asked Israel to stop targeting members of the Hamas-run civilian police force who escort aid trucks in Gaza, warning that a "total breakdown of law and order" is significantly exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the enclave, three U.S. and Israeli officials told Axios.

Why it matters: U.S. officials say they are increasingly concerned "that Gaza is turning into Mogadishu" as a security vacuum and desperation have opened the door for armed gangs to attack and loot aid trucks, putting even more pressure on the Strip's already strained humanitarian system.

  • It's a concern the Biden administration has been warning Israel about for several months and why it urged the Israeli government to plan in advance for who will take over governing Gaza after the war, U.S. officials said.
  • Mogadishu — the capital of Somalia, in the Horn of Africa — was once considered the most lawless and dangerous city in the world.

Driving the news: There's been a significant decrease in the number of aid trucks entering Gaza in recent weeks, according to the UN humanitarian aid office (OCHA). On at least four days in the last two weeks, less than 10 aid trucks entered the enclave.

  • That's in part due to the security situation on both sides of the border, UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian Territory James McGoldrick told reporters this week.

Members of the Hamas-run civilian police force had been operating in Rafah and on the Gaza side of the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing to ensure security for the aid trucks. But they left their posts earlier this month after being targeted by Israel.

  • At least 11 members of the police force in Rafah have been killed in Israeli air strikes in recent weeks, according to U.S. officials. This opened the way for armed gangs to take control of the aid, the officials said.
  • U.S. envoy for humanitarian affairs David Satterfield said at an event last week that the civilian police force in Gaza "certainly include Hamas elements" but they "also include individuals who don't have a direct affiliation with Hamas who are there as part of the Palestinian Authority's remnant presence and security."

As a result of the security vacuum many of the trucks that have recently entered Gaza have been overrun by criminal gangs, as well as Palestinians desperate for any kind of aid as the conditions in the enclave continue to increasingly deteriorate and hunger grows, McGoldrick said.

  • The hopelessness and desperation in Gaza have created a "great deal of law and order challenges .. and that's affecting our ability to do the work we do here," McGoldrick said.
  • Getting aid to northern Gaza has been especially difficult, according to McGoldrick. OCHA is hoping Israel will open a crossing in the north so aid trucks can directly access the areas most in need of supplies. It also said it is attempting to get assurances from Israel that police won't be targeted.

Behind the scenes: Biden administration officials raised their concerns with their Israeli counterparts and asked that Israel stop targeting the Hamas civilian police as long there is no alternative that could provide security to the aid trucks, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • But Israel rebuffed the request because one of its goals in the war is to ensure that Hamas no longer runs Gaza, two Israeli officials said.

Israeli officials say they have plans for alternative ways to provide aid like cooperating with local clans that oppose Hamas.

  • One such plan was drafted for the Zeitoun neighborhood south of Gaza City.

Yes, but: It's unclear whether these plans, including the opening of a new crossing in northern Gaza, will be implemented anytime soon.

  • "The current situation isn't working," a U.S. official told Axios. "Food must come in or we are going to have famine in Gaza — and this is going to dramatically damage Israel."

What they're saying: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday discussed the U.S. concerns with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant. Austin stressed the need to find a way to provide security for the aid trucks, the U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • "Secretary Austin raised the need to improve the deconfliction process with humanitarian groups and to ensure more aid reaches Palestinian civilians, as looting and violence hinder access to humanitarian convoys in Gaza," Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said in a statement.
Go deeper