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U.S. food drops over Gaza are criticized as too little and ineffective

The distribution of tens of thousands of meals is part of a joint Jordan-U.S. aid operation, and comes as Biden faces growing political pressure to do more to help the Palestinians.
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ABOARD C-130 CARGO PLANE OVER GAZA — The scale of the destruction in the northern Gaza Strip is clear from the sky — the streets looked deserted and most buildings have been reduced to rubble.

An NBC News crew aboard a Jordanian Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules dropping ready-to-eat meals was given a rare look at the enclave where hundreds of thousands are "one step away from famine," according to the United Nations and other aid agencies.

As the plane came into range of the target, a back door opened and parachutes quickly deployed and a stream of boxes drifted gently down to earth.

Sixteen pallets with 52,700 meals were dropped Thursday as part of a joint Jordanian-United States operation that comes as President Joe Biden faces growing political pressure at home and abroad to do more to help the Palestinians. The aid drops, which come even as the U.S. continues to supply Israel with military hardware, have been criticized as inefficient by some international aid organizations, and as far too little to make a dent in the ocean of suffering after five months of war.

“I see it as a drop in the bucket,” said Zomi Frankcom, a senior manager at World Central Kitchen, a Washington-based charity founded by star chef José Andrés.

Speaking to NBC News on the tarmac of the King Abdullah II Airbase in the Jordanian city Zarqa, Frankcom also acknowledged the limitations of delivering food aid by air.

But she added, “This is all going toward providing meals in Gaza, so if that’s happening, then that’s a fantastic thing, no matter what the format is.”

Later on Thursday, in his State of the Union address, Biden will announce that the U.S. military will help establish a temporary port on the Gaza coast, increasing the flow of humanitarian aid for the beleaguered territory, according to senior administration officials.

Thursday’s drop was the third involving the U.S. Air Force.

The first, on Saturday, came two days after more than 100 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 injured trying to access aid in northern Gaza, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which accused Israel of opening fire on the crowd. Israel has said that it fired only when its troops felt threatened and that most of the civilian casualties were trampled to death. 

The U.S. and many of its international partners had already been pushing Israel to speed up the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and to open a third crossing into the territory, where the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program and many other aid organizations have warned that famine is imminent.

Aid groups and humanitarian organizations have also questioned the strategy of dropping aid in from the air.

The drops are “completely ineffective” because “you don’t really know where they’re going to land,” said Melanie Ward, CEO of the U.K.-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Aid Drop Over Northern Gaza
Parachutes carrying aid drift to the ground in Gaza on Thursday.Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images

“Gaza is a live war zone, and so there is unexploded ordnance in places, there are lots of destroyed buildings,” she said. “People are so desperate that they will then put themselves in really dangerous situations to try to get to the food.”

Ward added that, once the drops are in the air, crowds run to where they are going to land and then fight to get hold of them. “Now, if you think about who the most vulnerable people are in a situation where there is mass starvation, they are not able to take part in a scrum to try and get hold of aid, so it’s not going to reach them,” she said.

One of the charity's Gaza-based workers also said that the contents of the food drops were also largely unsuitable.

“They only contain food parcels that are enough for two or three people, for less than two or three days,” Mahmoud Shalabi, a senior program manager for Medical Aid for Palestinians, told the charity Tuesday in a voice note from Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza.

“Some of them contain meals that need microwaving, and we don’t even have electricity right now,” he said.

“Everybody I know in Gaza Strip has lost weight,” he said. “There is nothing left in the markets” and “the streets are empty because there are no stalls, there is no food to sell.”  

Others have suggested that it could fall into the hands of Hamas and the U.S. could inadvertently wind up aiding the militant group.

Asked about this Friday, White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. would learn over the course of the aerial operation.

“There’s few military operations that are more complicated than humanitarian assistance airdrops,” he said, adding that Pentagon planners, in identifying drop locations, would aim to balance getting the aid closest to where it’s needed with keeping those on the ground out of harm’s way from the drops themselves.

Richard Engel and Gabe Joselow reported from above the Gaza Strip and Henry Austin from London.