As It Happens·Q&A

A 4-day pause in fighting won't solve Gaza's humanitarian crisis, says aid worker

UNICEF spokesperson James Elder says a few days without airstrikes won't be enough to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there.

UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) unloaded 137 trucks' worth of humanitarian supplies today

A line of transport trucks with tarps covering the cargo on the flatbeds/
Trucks carrying humanitarian aid line up at the Rafah Border Crossing in Egypt, on the way to Gaza, on Nov. 19, 2023. (Amr Nabil/The Associated Pres)

While the four-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas will help much-needed aid move into Gaza, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder says a few days without airstrikes won't be enough to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there.

The UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) unloaded 137 trucks' worth of humanitarian supplies today, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It's the biggest delivery of aid to Gaza since the fighting began.

The first day of the truce has also seen 24 Israeli hostages held in Gaza released, according to the Red Cross, as well as 39 Palestinians let out of Israeli prisons where they were being held.

The deal, brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States, was first announced on Wednesday.

Since Hamas's attack on Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and a lack of medical supplies, food, water and fuel in the region have led to the deaths of over 14,000 people in Gaza, according to Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry — figures deemed reliable by the United Nations.

And while the skies over Gaza were quiet on Friday, Elder, who arrived there Thursday, says there's no sense of optimism in the territory. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

What are the people in Gaza telling you today?

They're expressing a huge amount of exhaustion. Honestly, Nil, it feels like fear and sorrow have sort of taken root in everything here.

Certainly I've not encountered this many children with wounds of war. I'm in the south — remember, it's the north that's borne the greatest brunt of this. The parents are terrified that they're losing options to look after their children and nothing could be more fearful for parents. 

And, of course, they're cold. It's getting cold at night and there's a critical, critical lack of water. And they all told me — every single person I listen to today told me — they lost a loved one. Every single person. And I sat with dozens of people today.

WATCH | Israel and Hamas fighting paused ahead of hostage release:

Israel and Hamas fighting paused ahead of hostage release

3 months ago
Duration 6:40
CBC's Briar Stewart, reporting from Tel Aviv, looks at what's happening in Israel and Gaza as a temporary pause in fighting takes hold.

What can you tell us about what you've been seeing and what it feels like for you there, experiencing it?

Today I'm seeing the devastation of a place, essentially. This place is being called a hellscape, a deathscape. It's true. There's a palpable sort of tension in the air. And the whole place bears the marks of distress, whether it's the way people look or shattered walls and broken windows or people sleeping in cars that have been damaged. 

A lot of people just want to get back to the north. They're desperate to get back and see family, try and look for family, try and recover anything that they can. People want to find their loved ones and bury their loved ones. 

Some people are definitely angry. They feel utterly abandoned. And today was a good day, at least on that front, because so much aid is coming in. But everyone knows that the aid that's coming in needs to be like that for weeks on end and not just four days and then go back to war.

A boy carrying a clear plastic bag filled with personal items, walking past destroyed buildings in Khan Younis, Gaza.
A displaced Palestinian boy carries a bag, as he returns to his home walking next to houses destroyed in an Israeli strike during the conflict, amid the temporary truce between Hamas and Israel, in Khan Younis on Nov. 24. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

You were talking about people wanting to go back to the north. Are you worried that [with] this pause in fighting people might make that dangerous journey?

The population has been given a clear sense that they're not allowed to. And this was spreading amongst the communities even as I was talking to them. But there is a great eagerness, of course, because [I'm] sitting time and again with a lost-looking father who's saying "I've got nothing now, I built a home, I built a business, I built a family. My car, my television, my house, it's all gone. It will never be replaced."

I can understand why they want to go back. But I think many understand it's not safe and others know there is nothing to go back to. 

You mentioned the aid that has managed to get in so far. What is in those trucks? How will it help people, given the level of devastation you're speaking of?

Today was the biggest humanitarian convoy since October 7. More than 100,000 litres of fuel, food, water, medical supplies, millions of litres of water, hygiene kits.

All those things are critical. So today was a very good starting point. We will do the same thing tomorrow, the same the day after that. But we hope we can do the same for days and weeks on end.

Two flatbed trucks covered with canvas are seen driving on a road.
A truck carrying humanitarian aid enters the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing, hours after the start of a four-day truce in battles between Israel and Hamas militants, on Nov. 24, 2023. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, UNICEF executive director Katherine Russell was warning the UN Security Council and wrote a piece in the New York Times as well about the threats to children, specifically child wasting, which is the most severe form of malnutrition in children. Are you seeing evidence of that first hand?

I didn't see evidence today in the hospital where I was, but that's [because] I was in the emergency [department] where children had the wounds of war. Certainly what I saw today was large numbers of children who are suffering from infections and diarrhea. And this is the first stage of a child getting sick, this is where they're unable to take food and so on.

[I spoke to] this father with a two-year-old and a nine-month-old, both really sick. He [said], "I didn't have clean water to give them." He knew the water [he gave them] was not from a safe source. He just had no choice. So when we start to see that en masse, that's when we really risk a mix of disease outbreak and malnutrition.

Is optimism a word that people even use there when they talk about this pause in fighting?

No, it's not. I still saw people laugh and speak in going about their daily business. But I saw a lot of stress on people's faces. And anyone I was able to sit down and talk to, unfortunately, any sense of optimism was completely absent from their voice.

How are you preparing for when this ceasefire ends and fighting resumes?

It's difficult for me [as a] humanitarian and as a father. I can't quite believe that we are literally going to have a respite for four or five days, and then [go] back to seeing hundreds of children killed a day. I'm staggered by that. I'm bewildered by that and I'm heartbroken by that.

Will you stay in Gaza?

Yes. There's some families [I] want to go back and see because I promised to give them some of the basics that they need for their children. But yes, at the moment, my days are absolutely in Gaza.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Abby Hughes

Journalist

Abby Hughes does a little bit of everything at CBC News in Toronto. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at abby.hughes@cbc.ca.

Interview with James Elder produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity

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