Airdropping Aid to Gaza Is an Expensive Gimmick

The airlift avoids the real problems causing starvation.


President Joe Biden announced Friday that the U.S. military will work with Jordan to begin airdropping aid to starving Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Ever since it was proposed, this idea has attracted criticisms from experienced humanitarian workers, who say the airdrops are an expensive, wasteful gimmick to avoid addressing the political problems causing the starvation.

The charity Oxfam America, for example, issued a statement Thursday arguing that airdrops "would mostly serve to relieve the guilty consciences of senior U.S. officials whose policies are contributing to the ongoing atrocities and risk of famine in Gaza." Instead, it said, Biden should "cut the flow" of American weapons to Israel.

Jeremy Konyndyk, the president of Refugees International and a former disaster relief official in the Obama and Biden administrations, outlined the problems with airdrops in a PBS interview a day before Biden's announcement.

"We only used them when we had absolutely no other option, because they're the worst way to get aid in. They cost a lot of money, they're difficult to mount logistically, and they get very little volume," Konyndyk said. "We're only resorting to airdrops because of the blockages by the Israeli government."

Airdropping food costs about $16,000 per ton, as opposed to $180 per ton on average to move food aid by truck, according to a U.S. Air Force study from 2016.

Under pressure from the Biden administration, the Israeli government has opened a land crossing into the Gaza Strip—but Israeli nationalist protesters have physically blocked the crossing several times. Meanwhile, goods entering Gaza from Egypt must still go through the arduous Israeli border inspection process.

Sen. Chris van Hollen (D–Md.), who visited the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing in January, told The New Yorker that some shipments were being held at the border for 20 days, and that he saw entire shipments turned back because they contained just one banned item, such as a tent with a metal pole.

The U.S. government itself has admitted that the starvation is a political problem, although it blames Hamas rather than Israel.

"It is not a question of aid going in," U.S. State Department spokesman Matt Miller told reporters on Thursday. "There is a distribution problem inside Gaza right now because there are police officers—some of whom are members of Hamas—who have been providing the security for that distribution inside Gaza. And what Israel says is that they have a legitimate right to go after Hamas. We would obviously prefer to see members of a security force inside Gaza who are not Hamas members."

Inside the Gaza Strip, distribution has been chaotic. Riots have broken out around aid convoys, and Hamas-affiliated police shot a teenager in a December incident. Israeli forces have also bombed the police officers guarding aid convoys. U.S. official David Satterfield said last month that the attacks on police in Gaza have made it "virtually impossible" to protect aid from "criminal gangs."

The deadliest aid-related incident of the war, known as "flour massacre," took place Wednesday, when Israeli forces opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians seeking aid. According to the Palestinian health ministry, 112 people were killed. The Israeli military claims that its troops opened fire when Palestinians approached them in an unsafe way, that their gunfire caused only 10 casualties, and that most of the deaths were produced by a stampede.

That day, the war's Palestinian death toll reportedly crossed 30,000 deaths. Half a million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, a quarter of the population, are facing imminent starvation, according to U.N. officials.

In addition to announcing the airdrops, Biden said that he was seeking an "immediate" six-week ceasefire and a "surge" of aid on the ground. He has so far resisted calling for a permanent end to the war. When the war resumes, the aid that cost Americans so much to fly in may soon be bombed by American weapons.