FCDO urged to 'step up and take effective action' as aid prevented from reaching Gaza

Diplomatic attempts to improve access for aid have been "ineffective", ICAI report finds
Aid convoy trucks loaded with supplies stands in front of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Photo: Sayed Hassan/dpa/Alamy Live News

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must step up its efforts to increase humanitarian assistance in Gaza, MPs have said, after a watchdog report said diplomatic work has so far been “ineffective” in getting aid into the region.

A report by the Independent Committee on Aid Impact today highlights how restrictions placed on access to Gaza by the Israeli government are contributing to the humanitarian crisis and preventing international aid reaching those who need it.

The report, which ICAI calls an “information note”, examines barriers to the international humanitarian response to the crisis in Gaza and the UK’s contribution. Israel’s ongoing military campaign – which began after the 7 October attack on Israel and taking of Israeli hostages – has “created a humanitarian catastrophe for Gaza’s 2.3 million residents”, the report says.

More than 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza and over three-quarters of the population have been displaced, with the north now subject to “famine conditions”, it says.

While the UK has committed an additional £74.5 million in funding to the international aid response since October, restrictions on access to Gaza have made it “extremely challenging to deliver humanitarian relief to those in need”, ICAI said.

Land crossings are tightly controlled by the Israel Defence Forces and aid convoys are subject to “exhaustive inspections”, which the IDF says are to prevent items that might benefit Hamas or be used as a weapon from entering Gaza. ICAI said stakeholders had reported an example of stone fruit being turned away for this reason.

A total of 59 trucks crossed into Gaza between 5 and 13 May, compared to 500 daily before the current conflict.

This is despite increasingly public and urgent messaging from the UK government, including foreign secretary David Cameron’s recent comments expressing “enormous frustration” at UK aid for Gaza being “routinely” and “arbitrarily” held up pending Israeli permissions, ICAI said.

The aid watchdog said ministers’ criticism of repeated military strikes on aid convoys by the Israeli government have also been “ineffectual”.

Commenting on the report, Sarah Champion, chair of parliament’s International Development Committee, said: “How can we say that people trapped in Gaza are being treated in accordance with international humanitarian law – or that the UK’s representations are having any meaningful effect?”

She said ICAI’s report reflected the committee’s observations from visiting the region in February as part of its inquiry on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The IDC's March report urged the UK government, among other things, to call on the IDF to open all existing land crossings and for opening hours to be extended to enable aid to get into the country more quickly. “Ultimately, this is the only way to avoid famine. Pressure must be put on Israel to speed up the progress of aid through checkpoints and border crossings,” the report said.

In its response to the report, the FCDO agreed or partially agreed with all the IDC’s recommendations.

“We continue to press Israel to make further changes to ensure more aid can be delivered effectively, including a major change in the conduct of hostilities to protect civilians, reform of Israel’s deconfliction mechanism to ensure the safety of aid workers, and progress on the UN’s minimum operating requirements, including more visas and driver approvals granted, as well as more trucks permitted to cross into Gaza,” it said.

But Champion said that while the response “was full of the right words and the UK’s increased aid to Gaza was very welcome… in the reality of the situation on the ground these are nothing more than a gesture”.

She said some countries are “choosing to respond with serious action” in the form of limiting arms sales to Israel and restoring funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which the UK suspended in January after the Israeli government alleged that some of its employees participated in the 7 October attacks.

“The money and words the UK government has thrown at this situation have been ineffectual, but let's not pretend we are powerless,” Champion added.

“Enough is enough. The UK must now step up to its proper place in the international humanitarian system and take effective action.”

Gideon Rabinowitz, director of policy and advocacy at Bond, the network for UK NGOs, said the ICAI report showed the UK's diplomatic efforts to halt the Rafah offensive and increase humanitarian assistance in Gaza "have been ineffective and ignored".

"As 1.4 million displaced civilians shelter in Rafah, the UK government must increase pressure and not be afraid to enforce strong diplomatic action to urgently prevent any further assault on Rafah and demand an immediate lasting ceasefire," he said.

He also called on the government to set out when it will resume funding to UNRWA, and suspend arms sales to Israel "for as long as there is a risk they may be used to violate international law".

'Diplomatic attempts to improve access and save lives have been ineffective'

The ICAI report describes how the FCDO has revised its humanitarian strategy several times since November. Its focus is now on securing multiple humanitarian pauses in the conflict, increasing humanitarian land access to Gaza, enabling the wider international response and restoring critical services – having previously focused on diplomacy, advocacy and flexible funding.

The response has been supported by a significant increase in FCDO advisory support, both in the UK and in the region, ICAI said.

The UK's diplomatic objectives in response to the crisis also included increasing the supply of humanitarian aid and improving humanitarian access in Gaza, as well as preventing further escalations of conflict, securing the release of hostages and supporting Israel’s right to self-defence, consistent with international law.

Diplomacy efforts to increase the supply of aid have included top-level ministers engaging directly with counterparts in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the region, and appointing a humanitarian representative to the OPTs in December.

The FCDO’s main focus in recent months has been on securing land access for humanitarian aid, the watchdog said. But ICAI found that this has been "ineffective".

While there has been a “marginal improvement” since October, the amount of food aid reaching northern Gaza is still “wholly inadequate”, the watchdog said.

ICAI chief commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton said said the humanitarian situation is "becoming an unprecedented catastrophe as Israel’s invasion of Rafah gets under way".

“While the UK has significantly increased aid to Gaza in response to the crisis it’s clear that very little is reaching those who urgently need it, with restrictions on land access – the only way to move enough aid – increasing and the situation for aid workers increasingly perilous," she said.

“That the UK and other donors’ diplomatic attempts to improve access and save lives have so far been ineffective shows how fragile the system underpinning international humanitarian law is, confronting a hugely complex crisis such as this.

"We note that other donors have taken steps such as stopping or reducing arms sales or resuming funding to the main humanitarian agency, UNRWA, while the UK has not.”

The report also sets out challenges to other routes for humanitarian aid. It notes that the UK has carried out airdrops of humanitarian supplies into Gaza – but that these drops "cannot be undertaken at anywhere near the scale required to relieve the growing famine".

Airdrops also pose a danger to citizens, with reports of people being killed by falling air packages, and are “relatively untargeted” and unlikely to reach the most vulnerable people including women, children, and elderly disabled people. And they are expensive, costing between £230,000 and £315,000 per aircraft.

The UK is also working with other countries to establish a maritime corridor for shipping aid to Gaza via Cyprus, but this faces “substantial” logistical challenges, according to the report.

“Maritime delivery does not overcome the challenges of internal distribution in Gaza once materials are offloaded,” it adds. “Some stakeholders see it as an unhelpful distraction from the core priority of securing land access, while others have stated even stronger concerns that it might enable the closure of land crossings.”

The report sets out several further lines of inquiry to be investigated by the watchdog or another body such as parliament’s International Development Committee.

They include: under what circumstances the UK would publicly state its assessment as to whether Israel has violated international humanitarian law, and the potential consequences of such a statement; the UK’s plans for future funding of UNWRA for Palestine Refugees; the UK’s strategy for restoring adequate supplies of food and essential goods into Gaza and ensuring sustainable humanitarian access; what the UK is doing to monitor its Gaza operations; and the long-term harms suffered by the population of Gaza.

 

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