Inside Gaza – a day in the life of humanitarian workers #1

Local news, 19.04.2024

In view of the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, Switzerland allocated CHF 90 million (close to USD 102 million) in humanitarian aid, including CHF 81 million to the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). The funds were disbursed in 2023 to the International Committee of the Red Cross, various United Nations agencies and Swiss non-governmental organisations in the medical sector.

While most people are familiar with the concept of humanitarian aid, understanding what it looks like in practice is another story. In order to shine a light on the realities of delivering humanitarian aid in crisis situations, the Swiss Cooperation Office Gaza & West Bank is publishing a series of blogs based on testimonies from humanitarian workers. 

PRCS Operations in the Gaza Strip
PRCS distribution operations in the Gaza Strip © PRCS

As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the mission of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) is to provide humanitarian assistance as well as health and social services to Palestinians. Sobhi Shakalaih has been working with PRCS for over 20 years, first as a student volunteer before becoming an employee in 2008. While he usually sits in the disaster management team, Sobhi joined the logistics team in October 2023 to act as the coordinator liaising with local and international institutions regarding aid crossing into the Gaza Strip. Since the Rafah crossing – the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt – re-opened on 21 October 2023, Sobhi has been living in PRCS’s Rafah office while his wife and 14-year-old daughter have changed locations multiple times after being displaced from their home in Gaza City.

Receive. Sort. Distribute. Repeat.

“My current daily work involves receiving aid trucks destined for the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing and the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing.” As reported in the news, a complex system has been put in place by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. Trucks are first inspected by Israeli authorities before being authorised to enter the Gaza Strip. “The role of the Palestinian Red Crescent is to manage this file nationally in coordination with the Egyptian Red Crescent. We receive approximately 150-200 trucks daily. My work starts at 7:30 AM and ends at 10:00 PM. We receive, sort, and distribute the aid to beneficiaries in shelters and camps across Rafah, totalling around 1.5 million displaced people. We’re also responsible to communicate with other institutions, such as United Nations agencies, regarding trucks designated for them”.

“A long line of blocked relief trucks on one side of the gates” 

“One of the main challenges we face is that all aid entering the Gaza Strip does not meet the actual needs of the displaced population, and its quantity is relatively low compared to the overall demand.” Indeed, prior to the current war, when needs were already significant but on a much lower scale, 500 trucks of aid would enter the Gaza Strip daily. Despite humanitarians’ best efforts, aid is not reaching the Palestinian population in sufficient quantity.

On a personal level, Sobhi says that “ensuring our protection as relief workers and aid recipients” is his biggest professional challenge. “Rafah has been subject to regular aerial bombardment since the beginning of the war, with instances of the crossing itself being targeted, resulting in loss of life among administrative staff and aid workers. Despite the presence of all emblems indicating that we are part of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and the expectation that Israeli forces adhere to the Geneva Conventions, which mandate the protection of medical and relief personnel during wars, there is still fear of being targeted while performing our duties at the crossing.” Sobhi is referring to the treaties from 1949 which were brought together in order to “protect people who do not take part in the fighting (civilians, medics, aid workers) and those who can no longer fight (wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops, prisoners of war).” After 194 states ratified the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, these rules, which are at the core of international humanitarian law, are universally applicable.

PRCS-operations-Gaza Strip
PRCS sorting aid deliveries © PRCS

With activities dating as far back as 1910, PRCS works towards preventing and allaying human suffering, protecting life and health, ensuring the respect of human dignity, preventing disease, and promoting health, social care and volunteering both in times of peace and war as well as during emergencies, crises and disasters. Due to its continuous engagement, PRCS has been widely recognised as one of the most important humanitarian actors in the Gaza Strip. Switzerland donated 10 million CHF from its emergency humanitarian credit to PRCS, who runs hospitals and the main ambulance service in the Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of the war, 17 PRCS team members have lost their lives while on duty.