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Palestinians desperately need food aid. How did the war in Gaza make food political?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Humanitarian groups have been warning that if more aid doesn't flow into Gaza, the hunger will kill people. But that aid has become a flashpoint. Aid trucks are being slowed by bureaucracy. And now, for more than a week, protesters in Israel have tried, with some success, to block trucks from entering Gaza. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on how essential food has become political.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Kerem Shalom is just across the border from Gaza. Today, aid trucks sit idle on the Israeli side of a massive concrete wall.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: (Chanting in Hebrew).

PERALTA: About a hundred people are chanting, don't give aid to rapists, don't give aid to butchers. For three days in a row, they threw themselves in front of trucks to keep them from entering Gaza. Like many protesters here, Rachel Touitou sees no difference between Hamas, the militant group responsible for the attack that killed some 1,200 people in Israel last year, and the 2 million Palestinians who are trying to survive the constant Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip. I asked Touitou if she doesn't think about the innocent civilians.

RACHEL TOUITOU: Should I have mercy on the children of today, what will be the terrorists of tomorrow?

PERALTA: Those words mirror how the Israeli government initially talked about aid. At the beginning of the war, Israel's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, ordered a complete siege of Gaza. No electricity, no fuel. Everything is closed, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOAV GALLANT: (Through interpreter) We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.

PERALTA: Twenty-seven thousand Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to Gaza's health ministry. The U.N. has warned all along that the situation is so dire, Gaza could tip into famine. Israel lifted the total siege, and for a brief period during a cease-fire in November, it allowed in more aid trucks. As international pressure mounted, the Israeli government softened its language. It said it hasn't been limiting aid and that there is no hunger in Gaza. But Miriam Marmur of Gisha, an Israeli organization that advocates for the freedom of movement of Palestinians, says the data shows otherwise. Since the war started about four months ago, about 10,000 trucks have made it into Gaza.

MIRIAM MARMUR: And that's more or less equivalent to what have been going in per month prior to the war.

PERALTA: Just a quarter of what used to get in before the war. The Israeli military did not return our request for comment, but Israel has blamed aid groups for the bottleneck. Marmur says the government limits what kind of aid is allowed, where it should be bought, how it should be transported.

MARMUR: All of these things impact aid operations and impacts a person in Gaza who needs food.

PERALTA: To Alex de Waal, a professor at Tufts University who studies mass starvation, this sounds familiar. During its civil war, Ethiopia erected a de facto blockade on the region of Tigray. For two years, the government insisted there was no hunger and that it wasn't limiting aid. The numbers showed otherwise. The international community protested, and experts warned of an imminent famine. De Waal says the civil war in Ethiopia changed the discourse on hunger in conflict.

ALEX DE WAAL: One thing that was sort of learned by those who inflict famine is that you can get away with it.

PERALTA: The international community couldn't stop it. Scientists estimate some 30,000 Ethiopians died because of malnutrition.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Singing in Hebrew).

PERALTA: Back at the border crossing with Gaza, I meet Noga Alfassa. In October, her uncle was killed, and her aunt was kidnapped by Hamas. She died shortly after. And her body is still in Gaza.

NOGA ALFASSA: (Through interpreter) And I'm here not because I want to starve a nation. But the only time that we had hostages returned, the only card that we have to play here is that of humanitarian aid.

PERALTA: Alfassa says it is painful to think that her actions here could hurt a family in Gaza. But she says she's also seen images on TV of Palestinians celebrating Israeli losses.

ALFASSA: (Speaking Hebrew).

PERALTA: "If a blockade inflicts just enough suffering for them to reject Hamas," she says, "it may just stop more suffering in the future."

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kerem Shalom in southern Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa. He started his journalism career as a pop music critic and after a few newspaper stints, he joined NPR in 2008.