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People in Gaza, suffering from mass hunger, are dying in quests to get food

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Gaza, mass hunger is spreading, and people living under bombardments are desperate for aid. But when that aid drops from the sky, it can be just as dangerous.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Retrieving it can be deadly. This week, a crowd of people waded into the sea to try to get to boxes of aid floating after airdrops. Gaza authorities say 12 people drowned. The United States calls it a tragedy but says airdrops are still needed.

FADEL: NPR's Jane Arraf joins me now from Beirut to talk about this. Good morning, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Jane, tell us why aid is being dropped into the sea from the sky when there are land routes into Gaza.

ARRAF: Well, first, after almost six months of war between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas, there is still a lot of restrictions. Israel, with Egypt's cooperation, controls Gaza's main border crossing, and it's limited the number of aid trucks coming in. And we have to remember Gaza has more than 2 million people. Children are literally starving to death, according to the U.N. So because so few trucks are allowed, the U.S. and other countries have resorted to dropping aid by plane. Some of these pallets with parachutes attached are deliberately dropped over the sea to drift ashore. Here is deputy Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SABRINA SINGH: These humanitarian aid drops occur over water, and the wind causes the bundles to drift over to land. In the event of a parachute malfunction, the bundles land in the water.

ARRAF: So Singh said in an airdrop Monday, three of 80 packages dropped by U.S. cargo planes had malfunctioning parachutes, and those packages landed in the sea. In other cases, pallets have been dropped over land and the wind has blown them offshore.

FADEL: Now, the airdrops - obviously not enough to feed Gaza's population. What does the U.S. want to happen going forward?

ARRAF: Well, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters yesterday the airdrops were never meant to substitute for food going in by land. He said the U.S. was, as he put it, encouraging Israel to allow in more trucks. Israel says it needs to limit the flow of aid to check for smuggled weapons. But European Union and U.N. officials have accused Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war.

FADEL: Now, we know President Biden has also announced the U.S. will build a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza to send food by ship. How is that going?

ARRAF: Well, that's going to take weeks. And again, it's not a substitute for Israel allowing in aid trucks that can distribute food throughout Gaza. And further limiting that aid, Israel recently told the U.N. agency for refugees it's banning it from bringing food to the north of Gaza, where there's the most urgent need. The U.S.-based organization, World Food Kitchen, has brought in barges of food by sea lately, and while that food could prevent some from starving, the amount and the speed of those deliveries barely makes a dent in the widespread famine that officials are predicting.

FADEL: And on top of that, we're seeing people die trying to get this life-saving aid dropped from the sky, as you've talked about today. And this week wasn't the first time this has happened, right?

ARRAF: Sadly, no. This month, Gaza health officials said five people were killed and more injured when a parachute on an airdropped pallet failed to open and landed on a house. Regarding the drownings, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called them a tragedy amid the ongoing tragedy of the war itself, and Hamas yesterday called for an end to airdrop, saying the roads needed to be opened immediately to allow trucks into Gaza. While the U.S. says those shipments have increased recently to as many as 200 trucks a day, it's still much less, Leila, than the roughly 500 trucks of aid that aid officials say are desperately needed. A Jordanian official says 30,000 trucks are backed up at the main border crossing with Egypt, waiting for Israeli approval to enter. He says some of Jordan's own aid trucks have been waiting in line for two months there.

FADEL: NPR's Jane Arraf in Beirut. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.