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Aid groups warned humanitarian operations in Gaza may collapse. In Rafah, they have

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A much-touted $320 million pier built by the U.S. military off the coast of Gaza has had a pretty rocky start. Just as the first trucks carrying food rolled off the pier's causeway and into Gaza, desperate crowds jumped on the trucks and carried the food away before it could get to any U.N. warehouses. That halted operations for a couple days, but aid workers in Gaza say it's not just food that is in short supply. With us to tell us more are NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy in Dubai. Hello to both of you.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. OK, Tom, let's start with you. You know, this pier - it was supposed to bring aid across the Mediterranean Sea from Cyprus to Gaza. Has any of that food actually reached people in Gaza yet?

BOWMAN: Well, Ailsa, some of the aid is getting in but clearly not enough. The U.S. Agency for International Development, which is responsible for administering foreign aid and development assistance, says, overall, 600 trucks of aid are needed each day in Gaza. But sometimes a couple of hundred trucks get in, sometimes only a few dozen each day. One problem is the main entrance point for aid in the southern city of Rafah. That's been closed by Israel as it continues its military operation there. There were two other crossing points, but the problem is inspections by Israel of the humanitarian cargo has slowed things down. The U.S. has pressed Israel to get more aid in.

And you mentioned the pier - this pier the U.S. military constructed off Gaza. Yesterday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said some aid from the pier finally reached Palestinians, but, he added - but not at the rate any of us are happy with. But, again, there's a need for 600 trucks each day. It's just not happening at this point.

BATRAWY: Yeah. And, I mean, I'll just jump in and say, like, NPR producer in Gaza, Anas Baba - he spoke to one of the guys who took the aid off the trucks from the pier over the weekend. Abu Mahmoud Abdel-aal (ph) says the trucks were carrying biscuits - like, actual tea biscuits. And everything was taken because there was no security in the area.

ABU MAHMOUD ABDEL-AAL: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says then he saw Apache helicopters overhead, and there was gunfire, and some people were killed. But listen to why he says he risked his life anyway for some tea biscuits.

ABDEL-AAL: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says, "when you see your son starving to death, you can't do anything but steal and try to feed him."

CHANG: Of course. Well, Aya, I know that you've been talking with aid workers in Gaza. What are they saying to you?

BATRAWY: Well, aid groups have been warning for weeks that a military assault to root out Hamas in that southern Gaza city of Rafah would collapse humanitarian operations. Now, Israel's military assault shut down those land crossings at the same time that 1 million people were fleeing Rafah to other areas in need of more aid. So basically, in less than three weeks now, we have the U.N. World Food Program and UNRWA, the main agency overseeing aid in Gaza, saying they ran out of food for Rafah. And several hundred thousand people are still there. And in central areas where people have fled to, food is being rationed. UNRWA's deputy director in Gaza, Scott Anderson - he told me this today.

SCOTT ANDERSON: The situation in the warehouses is really very much hand-to-mouth. We don't have enough of anything.

BATRAWY: He says they've only been getting, like, a third of the amount of fuel that they need since Israel's assault in Rafah. And so basically, hospital generators have taken precedence and priority over bakeries that have shut down.

CHANG: Wow. Well, Tom, I know that the U.S. has been asking Israel to submit its plans for a humanitarian evacuation of Rafah before it sent in its troops. But - what? - already a million people have left Rafah at this point. Did the Pentagon ever see any plan?

BOWMAN: Well, Ailsa, there's a humanitarian plan and a military plan. The U.S. has not received a detailed military plan from Israeli officials, and it wants them to mount this limited, targeted operation - not a full-scale invasion. And on the humanitarian plan, there is also no detail. I asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this week, what's the plan to care for around a million people who have left Rafah? Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: Early on, we received a conceptual brief on how they were going to put measures in place to take care of the population that moved out of that battle space. I've not seen evidence that those things are in place yet, sir.

BOWMAN: So can you give us a sense of the concept that they gave you - any details on that to us?

AUSTIN: I'll leave that to the Israelis to brief their concept.

BOWMAN: So again, the U.S. is still waiting to see how Israel plans to house and feed those hundreds of thousands of civilians.

BATRAWY: I mean, yeah, but there are already tanks in Rafah and key neighborhoods there. The majority of people have already left the city to places where they've had to erect their own tents, with sewage flowing in the streets, no running water and, again, a lack of food.

CHANG: Well, meanwhile, Aya, because Rafah borders Egypt, Egypt has made it very clear that it does not want any Israeli tanks right there at the border. How is Cairo responding to this war that's basically on its doorstep?

BATRAWY: Well, before tanks had rolled into Rafah, Egypt was working to try to broker a cease-fire that would free some Israeli hostages in Gaza. And they wanted to thwart an Israeli assault on their border with Gaza. Now, Egyptian security officials told NPR that Israel had shared broadly some areas that they wanted to strike in Rafah, like tunnels. But now that Israel went ahead and took control of that Egypt-Gaza crossing from the Gaza side, Egypt has responded with two things.

The first thing it did to try to pressure Israel is it joined South Africa's genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, saying that Israel has made Gaza unlivable. But the second thing Egypt's done is there are 2,000 trucks worth of humanitarian aid sitting in Egypt meant for Gaza. And U.S. officials are basically saying that Egypt isn't sending those trucks toward Israel to get into Gaza through that one crossing down there in the south. And so while these two moves are meant to pressure Israel, ultimately, it's people in Gaza that are paying the price of this political impasse and this assault on Rafah at a time of starvation and even famine in some parts of Gaza, according to the World Food Programme.

CHANG: That is NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Tom Bowman in Washington. Thank you to both of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

BATRAWY: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.