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U.S. dropped tens of thousands of meals into Gaza with more planned. It's not enough

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

First this hour, we're going to talk about ready-to-eat meals. That's right. Tens of thousands of them have again been airdropped into Gaza by U.S. Air Force cargo planes. U.S. military officials say more aid drops are planned and that the U.S. will take part in moving aid by sea. President Biden will talk more about that tonight in his State of the Union address. But five months into this war between Israel and Hamas, the U.S. is clearly frustrated with Israel and the lack of aid getting into Gaza as the humanitarian crisis there deepens. For more on all of this, we have NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here with us in the studio and NPR's Fatma Tanis, who joins us from Jerusalem. Hey, to both of you.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. Fatma, I want to start with you. Can you just tell us what is the situation right now inside Gaza?

TANIS: Sure. Ailsa, we're talking about more than 2 million people living in what the U.N. says are appalling conditions. That means no clean water, sanitation, no medicine, food. And it's been like that for months now, all while the fighting is going on. One aid worker who is in Gaza told me the other day they saw a child, a 6-year-old, with severe burns, and all the doctors had to give him were two pills of aspirin.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

TANIS: Now, the hunger in the north is much worse, and the civil order there has also completely collapsed. We know of at least 10 young children who have starved to death. The U.N. warns that there will be many more if aid doesn't start flooding in immediately. And we already know that airdrops are not an effective way to help. They are a last resort. I want to tell you about what happened to Taghreed al Khoudary. She is the mother of four in Gaza City. Recently, she's had to get her kids used to eating just one loaf of bread a day. Here she is.

TAGHREED AL KHOUDARY: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: So a couple of days ago, a big package from an airdrop fell on her roof. She went up to investigate, was very excited about it. But then suddenly, crowds stormed her house. Some were carrying knives and even guns, and a big fight broke out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Non-English language spoken).

AL KHOUDARY: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: She told them, just please take it all and leave my family alone. Unfortunately, the mass starvation has created a big safety problem, too.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, Tom, I know that you were on a call today with Biden administration officials. It sounds like the U.S. military will get involved in more than just airdrops, right? Like, what can you tell us at this point?

BOWMAN: Well, senior administration officials say the U.S. military will be creating some sort of a temporary port or pier in Gaza. So cargo ships from Cyprus can pull up, offload food, water and medicine. We don't have a lot of detail, Ailsa, about what this will look like. But I'm told an option is this massive floating platform, a floating bridge that's been used by the Army in exercises in Australia. And from this platform, trucks would roll off from ships and then move the aid to land.

And we're told this will take weeks to get all this in place. But officials are quick to say, listen, no U.S. military personnel will be on the ground in Gaza. But all these efforts just show how desperate the situation is. Administration officials say the current aid effort is nowhere near enough or fast enough.

TANIS: We should note that, you know, before, Ailsa, 500 trucks a day were making it in to Gaza. That was not during wartime. That was when Gaza had a functioning private sector and could grow some of its own food. Now, that's all been nearly destroyed. So officials say there needs to be a lot more than the 500 trucks getting in.

CHANG: Everything you're describing has been a deep source of frustration to lots of senior officials here in the U.S., who've been calling continually for more aid to be allowed into Gaza, right?

BOWMAN: Yes. And at this point, U.S. officials say we will not wait for Israel. They've been pressing Israel for months, and not enough has happened. Now, administration officials just met with Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz. And the Pentagon readout said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he expressed strong concerns over the humanitarian situation in Gaza. So that's why the U.S. will do things like more airdrops and also move to create this port or pier.

But the U.S. says ground routes are still the best and most efficient way to move large amounts of aid in. And they want Israel to do more along these lines. Israel is opening a new crossing, the third crossing, after U.S. pressure. But again, still not nearly enough aid is getting in.

CHANG: Exactly. Well, Fatma, Israel says it is doing everything it possibly can to facilitate aid into Gaza. So what's going on?

TANIS: Well, Israel says that it has to inspect every single shipment that goes into Gaza. Now, aid groups say that there are several other Israeli policies in place that are preventing a steady flow of aid. For example, they can't get any of their supplies from Israel or the West Bank, or even through Israeli ports, which is how they've done it for years. And this has created a big supply chain issue.

Then there's been the major issue of safety that we've been talking about, you know, delivering aid within Gaza, especially to the north. And there, rights groups say that Israel has been undermining aid agencies, not allowing them usage of safe roads and turning them back from checkpoints after agreeing upon routes. Now, we saw an example of this week, when more than 100 Palestinians were killed trying to pull aid off trucks. That was in a chaotic scene where Israeli troops also opened fire because they say that they felt threatened. So the situation has gotten really bad.

CHANG: That is NPR's Fatma Tanis in Jerusalem and Tom Bowman in Washington. Thank you to both of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

TANIS: Thank you.

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

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Fatma Tanis
Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.