Aid groups navigate dangers of Gaza war amid growing internal strife
The Washington Post November 29, 2023
CAIRO — For weeks, humanitarian workers at the United Nations’ migration agency have detailed their concerns over the Israel-Gaza war in emails, town-hall meetings and an internal letter to their director — demanding “a clear, public stance against forced displacement” of Palestinians.
They have yet to receive an answer, according to five staff members in the Middle East who are among the signatories from offices worldwide. Instead, they said, higher-ups at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have sent reminders to stay neutral on social media and tips for self-care in stressful times.
“If we remain silent, are we being neutral or are we enabling?” said one of the IOM workers.
Now, frustrated IOM personnel are going public, joining a growing movement of aid workers sounding the alarm about how their agencies are handling the politics and perils of the conflict, which has created one of the most complex humanitarian challenges in modern times.
The IOM staffers spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation for breaking agency protocol by speaking to the press without authorization. The IOM declined to comment for this story, except to say that “IOM leadership has not received such a letter from staff and therefore cannot comment based on speculation.”
Veteran humanitarian workers who served in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and other conflict zones have described the situation in Gaza in superlatives — U.N. relief coordinator Martin Griffiths called it “complete and utter carnage,” and Secretary General António Guterres said it was “hell on earth.”
Aid agencies now face compounding crises: the sheer scale of the devastation, the targeting of personnel and, increasingly, inner turmoil, as some outraged staffers demand a more robust defense of humanitarian principles from their leaders.
Israel’s land, air and sea assault on the densely populated Gaza Strip has killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which stopped providing daily updates to the death toll after attacks on medical infrastructure made it impossible to get an accurate tally.
The war has also caused catastrophic damage to housing, farmland and vital infrastructure. The war began Oct. 7, when Hamas militants launched a brutal attack inside Israel, killing at least 1,200 people and seizing scores of others as hostages. A negotiated pause in fighting has offered Gazans a reprieve from bombs, but not from suffering.
“This is, for virtually anybody who’s been in the humanitarian realm — as a leader, as a worker, as an analyst — the most desperately awful scene I have ever witnessed,” said Jennifer Leaning, a public health scholar at Harvard who has written extensively about humanitarian responses to conflicts.
Leaning said humanitarian workers are also de facto diplomats, forced to choose their words carefully to safeguard vital access and funding. But in most other conflicts, Leaning said, civilians have had an escape route and violations of norms were more sporadic. In Gaza, she said, aid groups have witnessed the bombing of a trapped population, as well as attacks on hospitals, medical convoys, schools and other targets typically considered off-limits.
Israel blames Hamas for using civilians as “human shields” and says it tries to limit casualties by issuing evacuation warnings. Palestinians and aid workers say there’s nowhere safe to go in the tiny enclave of more than 2 million people.
Humanitarian officials are wrestling with how stridently to protest, as they must also work with Israel to negotiate access to hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians with urgent needs.
“This is a geopolitical conundrum and I don’t fault the U.N. agencies and the major international agencies for having difficulty in perceiving what their role can be to help,” Leaning said. “But I do think they should be speaking out in outrage at the violation of all humanitarian and legal norms.”
The longer the conflict goes on without a long-term cease-fire, the more vocal humanitarian workers are becoming.
In recent days, Norwegian Refugee Council chief Jan Egeland noted on X, formerly Twitter, that at least 69 shelters, “filled with children and protected by international law, have been bombed.” A return to warfare once the temporary pause ends, he added, “would be utter madness.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross, typically among the most measured in its statements, said the “horrific loss of civilian lives in Israel” cannot be used to “justify the limitless destruction of Gaza.” In a Nov. 10 statement, the Red Cross said Israel’s attacks on hospitals are “becoming unbearable.”
For many rank-and-file humanitarian personnel, however, responses from their leaders are seen as too little, too late, leading to internecine rifts and flagging morale. Devex, a news outlet focused on the aid and development world, has chronicled the rising anger inside the World Food Program, UNICEF and other agencies.
WFP chief Cindy McCain, widow of Republican Sen. John McCain, is facing calls for her resignation from staff who are circulating a letter that says she is “not fit for office and is doing damage to WFP’s reputation as the standard-bearer in highlighting the links between conflict and hunger,” Devex reported.
A WFP spokesperson did not address the complaints but told The Post the agency’s “senior leadership has been clear and steadfast that operational aid organizations must have sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to Gaza — and that safety for humanitarian workers and civilians is essential.”
When UNICEF chief Catherine Russell visited Gaza this month, Devex reported, beleaguered local staff prepared talking points that included telling their boss they “contemplated whether to meet you or not,” citing what they described as “UNICEF’s weak position in the face of what can be called a deliberate and systematic attack on the Palestinian children.”
Around 6,000 children have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, and hundreds more are believed to be buried under the rubble, according to Gaza health officials.
Russell told the U.N. Security Council last week that “the Gaza Strip is the most dangerous place in the world to be a child,” adding that attacks on children “have been catastrophic, indiscriminate and disproportionate.”
At the U.S. Agency for International Development, more than 600 employees signed a letter urging President Biden to push for an immediate cease-fire, saying they were “alarmed and disheartened at the numerous violations of international law.”
The issues are particularly thorny for the IOM, which has more than 19,000 employees in 171 countries and is tasked with migration assistance. The internal letter, drafted by unknown authors and disseminated through a staff association, has been shared and endorsed by personnel from around the world, IOM staffers told The Post. Signatories are not able to see how many others have signed on to the message.
The letter expressed worries of a “mass forced displacement” of Palestinians from Gaza because residents are being pushed south toward the Egyptian border, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Post.
Simcha Rothman, a prominent member of the Israeli parliament, suggested earlier this week that Gazans should be resettled in other parts of the world, alleging they were being held in Gaza by the United Nations “for political reasons in order to hurt the state of Israel.” Earlier this month Israeli agriculture minister Avi Dichter said: “We’re rolling out Nakba 2023,” using the Palestinian term, Arabic for “catastrophe,” for the mass expulsion of Palestinians during the months before and after the 1948 war that created Israel.
“Are we going to provide support for a second Nakba?,” asked one IOM employee who endorsed the letter. “For us, even the slight idea of that happening lit a fire.”
The letter suggests that an extra layer of suspicion comes from IOM chief Amy Pope’s past roles as a senior adviser on migration to Biden and a Homeland Security adviser during the Obama administration. The IOM staffers who signed the letter fear her Washington connections will make the agency susceptible to potential White House pressure to guard Israeli interests.
Last month, Pope wrote on social media that “The suffering going on in #Gaza cannot continue” and noted that people desperately need food, water, medicine and fuel.
Pope also held a video meeting with hundreds of personnel in Middle East offices. She offered reassuring words, the staffers said, but didn’t answer what they consider the key questions for a migration official: “What do we understand as voluntary movement? Are there any conversations at the moment with Israel or the U.S. about moving people out of Gaza?”
In addition, they said, an unspoken taboo around criticism of Israel makes it difficult to openly share their concerns. Staffers stressed that they “don’t want to demonize [Pope] — it’s a tough position.”
Similar frictions are roiling other workplaces, including in Hollywood, Western media and academia. But the issues hit closer to home for aid workers.
Employees of international humanitarian organizations, especially local Palestinians, have found themselves as vulnerable as the civilians they’re trying to assist. More than 100 U.N. personnel have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7 — the largest number in any conflict in the organization’s history.
“They have never expected to be as targeted as an enemy soldier might be, and that’s what’s happening,” Leaning said. “It’s a real sense of bewilderment that people are working with.”
Doctors Without Borders said last week that it had recorded five recent attacks on its staff or facilities, including a prolonged and terrifying ordeal for 137 staff members and their families. The personnel said they were “deliberately” targeted this month as they tried to evacuate from the clinic and headquarters where they had been sheltering, without food or water, near Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital.
In a statement, the Israeli military said the convoy was “driving suspiciously” and that warning shots had been fired without any hits registered.
But two relatives of staff members died in the attack, one of them “painfully with no access to medical care or pain relief for an abdominal blast injury,” tweeted Natalie Thurtle, an emergency physician with the group. “I honestly don’t know how much more our staff can take,” she said.
As the exhausted and traumatized group retreated and waited again for a sign that evacuation was possible, four of the five vehicles they planned to use were burned during heavy fighting around the office. On Nov. 20, a fifth was broken in half, as if crushed by a heavy-duty vehicle or a tank.
Doctors Without Borders said in a statement that the vehicles were the only means of evacuation, and “their destruction also jeopardized the possibility to secure evidence on the attack on the convoy.”
The next day, news reached the team that two of its doctors, Mahmoud Abu Nujaila and Ahmad al-Sahar, had been killed in a strike on al-Awda hospital in northern Gaza.
“Humanitarian organizations have steeled their people to be neutral — nonsectarian, evenhanded,” Leaning said. “But I would suggest that now they need to say, in the face of what is truly ghastly, that being humanitarian is being in support of ordinary human beings in need.”
Loveluck reported from Jerusalem.