Israel-Hamas: A humanitarian quandary
Deliberations continue over how to help civilians in Hamas-controlled Gaza
The Hamas-fired rocket blazed across the sky. Just a few seconds earlier, sirens blared, and David Westlund grabbed his computer and ran outside. He pointed it upward and shouted, “Watch! Watch!” Appearing on his screen during a timely video call with WORLD on October 19, the rocket arched nearer. Then, far above him, it suddenly exploded as Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted it. A widening circle of smoke slowly trailed off.
Westlund talked with WORLD from Omer, Israel, a small town about five miles from better-known Be’er Sheva and 25 miles from Gaza. A Christian tour guide originally from Minnesota, Westlund has lived in Israel for 43 years. He’s used to scrambling toward a bomb shelter when occasional sirens announce incoming rockets. But going from leading happy tourists on a Friday to watching televised reports on Saturday of an all-out “demonic massacre” was not something he ever anticipated.
“Everyone quickly realized this was the worst attack ever,” said Westlund.
Air sirens and missile attacks have sounded continually since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists based in the Gaza Strip fired more than 2,000 rockets toward Israeli towns before breaking past a heavily fortified border fence into Israel. More than 1,400 Israelis died in the attack. Estimates of the number of deaths in Gaza from Israeli strikes are difficult to verify since they come from the Hamas-run health ministry, but the reported toll is in the thousands. Regional and Western players are working to stave off a wider regional conflict.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis is underway. Israeli communities near the border with Gaza are still uncovering bodies from the initial attack. Israel has stopped supplying food, water, and electricity to Gaza’s 2 million residents. More than 1 million residents have fled southward as Israeli troops prepare for a ground offensive. The Israel Defense Forces on Monday launched limited ground raids into the region.
Egypt has allowed three small convoys of aid trucks across the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Inside the Palestinian enclave, hospitals say they are running out of fuel and supplies to treat the injured.
Dr. Richard Brennan, the World Health Organization’s regional emergency director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, told CNN the goal is to get to 100 trucks of aid a day.
But sending more aid into Gaza risks empowering Hamas to keep up its attacks. Officials, aid workers, and ministry leaders are divided on the best way to help those in need while quickly ending the war.
On Friday, President Joe Biden asked Congress for $14 billion in assistance to Israel as part of a larger emergency funding package. Days earlier, he pledged $100 million worth of aid to Gaza and the West Bank while visiting Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will not allow any aid to cross from his side of the border into Gaza until Hamas releases all hostages. The terror group is holding more than 200 people it abducted during the Oct. 7 attack. It freed two American hostages on Friday and two elderly Israeli women on Monday.
Itamar Marcus, founder and president of Palestine Media Watch, described aid deliveries in Gaza as “ a death sentence for Israelis—the men, women, children, and infants Hamas kidnapped,” adding, “the only leverage we had was a blockade.”
Marcus said Hamas has broad support from Palestinians in Gaza, where “children are raised to hate Jews.” He said Biden was wrong recently when he said Hamas doesn’t represent most Palestinians.
“Don’t forget, in 2006 the Palestinian people voted Hamas into office,” said Elliot Chodoff, military and political strategist and a former professor at the University of Haifa. He said he appreciates Biden’s strong vocal support, but money sent to Gaza will end up with Hamas.
Westlund, too, doesn’t believe Israel’s allies should send aid into Gaza because it ultimately would further Hamas’ goals.
Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse, shared one solution with WORLD. Although in Israel the organization can distribute food vouchers for displaced Israelis staying in hotels, it’s had to be more careful helping Gaza. “We are able to put money into the bank accounts in the West Bank, and they’re able to transfer it into the church accounts in Gaza,” he said.
Gaza has a handful of churches that can give money directly to the needy to buy increasingly limited and more expensive goods. “I don’t have any control over politics,” Graham said. “I’m just trying to help my brothers and sisters in the faith.”
In the city of Ashdod in southern Israel, Jonathan Miles has struggled to adjust the services of Shevet Achim, a medical ministry that brings children with congenital heart conditions from Gaza to Israel for treatment.
Four children and their families from Gaza remain in Israel, including two children still receiving treatment.
“We’re keeping them in our home until something changes,” said Miles, who serves as the ministry’s international coordinator. “We’ve not been able to get new kids into Israel.”
Shevet Achim is now operating with only about a third of its staff because many volunteer team members have left the country. But Miles said the work continues, and some Israelis are asking how they can help.
“We just want to keep that window open,” he said. “A big part of that is praying hearts don’t get hardened, that with all the killings, people don’t stop reaching out and stop caring for their neighbors.”
Westlund says people in Israel are helping where they can. His wife, Anneli, just returned from near Jerusalem, where she was caring for an Israeli soldier brutally wounded during the invasion. Westlund thinks Israel needs weapons from the United States—specifically bunker buster bombs to destroy tunnels where Hamas terrorists hide—more than it needs humanitarian aid.
The war has fueled some unity in Israel. Protesters who crowded the streets for months demonstrating against a controversial judicial overhaul are now working to reunite families, collect donations, and track down the identities of some of the hostages still held by Hamas.
“I hope … we’ll have something left to save, and once we get there, we’ll keep fighting for democracy,” Kalanit Sharon, leader of one protest group, told Agence France-Presse.
And what will become of Gaza once the war ends? Marcus with Palestine Media Watch says the region will need more than humanitarian aid: “The Palestinian Authority would need to be dissolved, replaced with leadership upon whom peace education is imposed.”
Chodoff, the military and political strategist from Haifa, mentioned similar ideas but isn’t confident they can happen because the Middle East is a hotbed of terrorism. He recalled a quote by former prime minister Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War in 1973: “We will only have peace…when they love their children more than they hate us.”
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