On today’s Big Take podcast, how nations and aid groups are struggling to get aid into Gaza and what a cease-fire might look like for Palestinians on the ground.

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Israeli and Hamas officials failed to come to a cease-fire agreement before the start of Ramadan this past weekend. That’s adding to the difficulty of getting aid into war-torn Gaza and the dire situation on the ground.

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Today on The Big Take podcast, Bloomberg’s Fares Alghoul and Ethan Bronner report on what a cease-fire would mean and why reaching an agreement has been so challenging.

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Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

Fares Alghoul:  For somebody like me who has lived for years in Gaza, and I know every street in Gaza, when I look at the pictures of the neighborhoods, I hardly recognize them due to the scale of destruction.

Sarah Holder: Fares Alghoul is a Bloomberg reporter from the Gaza strip.

Fares Alghoul: That’s where I was born. That’s where I grew up. 

Sarah Holder: He’s been living in Canada since July 2021, and is covering the war from his home there. Week to week, he says, the satellite images he sees change dramatically.

Fares Alghoul:  They were grayish because, you know, the color of the buildings in Gaza is mostly gray. But when you look at the same picture at the same location after a week or two you find it has become, like, yellowish because of the sand. Because this means that the homes were blown up, or were leveled to the ground. 

Sarah Holder: Since the start of the war in October, most of Fares’s family has left Gaza. His mother made it to Egypt last month. But his sister is still there with her children — and she’s pregnant. Fares has been trying to help her get out before the baby is due in two months.

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Fares Alghoul:  I hate listening from her because the first thing she asks is ‘What happened when are we leaving Gaza?  Have things worked out?’ And I really have no answer. She hopes that if she was still in Gaza by the time of her delivery, there will be ceasefire, so she can at least get the minimum care. 

Sarah Holder: For millions of people like Fares’s sister, the promise of a ceasefire—even a brief one—could be critical. About a quarter of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are facing starvation, according to the UN. For weeks, there have been cease-fire talks involving the US, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and Hamas. The goal was to secure a ceasefire deal by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But now, that deadline has been missed – and questions remain about when and if an agreement could be reached. Today on the show: What would a six-week ceasefire mean for people on the ground in Gaza? And what might it tell us about the future of the territory after this war ends? This is the Big Take, from Bloomberg News. I’m your host, Sarah Holder.

Sarah Holder: Sunday marked the beginning of a Ramadan that will be very different for the people in Gaza this year. 

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Fares Alghoul: Mosques are usually full with people. The month is marked by festivities, by family gatherings for large meals. All these things are unattainable in Gaza these days.

Sarah Holder: The White House had hoped to reach a deal in time for Ramadan.

Ethan Bronner: It happens to be a time when passions—political, religious, nationalist—often run high. And so the goal was to avoid the conflict being underway at a time like that. And also to offer relief to some kind, of course, to those under siege in Gaza. 

Sarah Holder: That’s Ethan Bronner, Bloomberg’s Israel bureau chief. He told us it was a long shot goal to begin with. 

Hamas, which controls Gaza, is designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the US, and the EU. Its October 7 attack on Israel killed over 1,000 people, and took hundreds hostage. Israel has stated that it won’t end this war until Hamas is completely uprooted from Gaza.

To reach a ceasefire deal, Hamas wants a release of prisoners held in Israeli prisons and Israel wants a complete accounting of the people still held hostage and a guarantee that they’ll be released.

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As of the latest talks, Israel offered to release some prisoners. But Israel wants to pause fighting for some weeks to permit the exchange and Hamas wants an end to the fighting entirely and a commitment by the Israeli military to leave Gaza. 

Ethan Bronner: There is a big gap. Israel wants a temporary pause. Hamas wants an end. And squaring that circle has been the big challenge.

Fares Alghoul: All the parties, even Hamas and Israel,  they talk either about hostages or fighting. Unfortunately, they are not, uh, paying attention to the suffering of the civilians, of the people.Sarah Holder: More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Every day that talks drag on, the situation on the ground gets more desperate. We asked Fares and Ethan what people are most in need of right now in Gaza.

Fares Alghoul: Most people are in dire need of food. They are hungry most of the time. People depend on unhealthy foods such as cans and they eat also herbs that are unsafe. Diseases are spreading in the south of Gaza Strip because of the jamming of people into displacement locations and in tent cities.

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Ethan Bronner: Temporary housing, power and the internet come and go, water comes and goes… And of course, the difficulty of getting reliable food has been increasingly a problem, especially in the north.There are somewhere between 300 and 500,000 people still in Northern Gaza living among the rubble without access to reliable aid convoys. So they are at greatest risk.

Sarah Holder: NGOs and countries around the world are at the ready to provide aid. In some cases they’re already doing what they can.

Ethan Bronner: So there’s the entire European Union, the Spanish, the French, the British, there’s the entire well off Sunni world, that is to say the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan. So these are all countries that are involved. They are already involved in setting up field hospitals in Gaza and floating hospitals offshore. 

Sarah Holder: The US has airdropped aid into Gaza, but President Biden has also committed to building a floating pier to deliver resources to Gaza from the water.

Ethan Bronner: They’re going to build it at sea and then sort of push it toward northern Gaza. Uh, and then there’s going to be this corridor of aid coming on ships from Cyprus. The expectation is that those ships would be the equivalent of about 200 trucks a day. So, that’s, you know, nearly half of the need. But it’s not going to happen quickly. 

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Sarah Holder: Crucially, any of these plans would require the support of the Israeli military on the ground to distribute aid…

But there is deep distrust between Israeli troops and the Palestinian people who now need them for basic necessities. A violent incident late last month exposed how fraught the situation is. 

Fares Alghoul: This was in North Gaza Strip. Uh, Israel allows a few trucks of aid a day into North Gaza, and this is way lower than what the people need there. That’s why people go and wait for the trucks. 

Sarah Holder: As a convoy of aid trucks reached a crowd of people waiting, the crowd reportedly surged toward the trucks. 

Ethan Bronner: There was a melee, around a convoy early in the morning, and Israeli soldiers felt threatened and, uh, and fired.

Sarah Holder: A stampede broke out. 

Fares Alghoul: You can imagine how there is the pushing and the stampeding and, uh, when thousands gather waiting for the food, desperate,  you can imagine such incidents will happen.

Sarah Holder: Hamas and Israel dispute exactly how many people died from Israeli fire and how many died from the subsequent stampede, but over 100 people were killed.

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Sarah Holder: In the best case scenario, a six-week cease-fire could provide a crucial moment for humanitarian relief to flood into the region.

Ethan Bronner: What I understand is some hundreds of trucks need to come in every day. Okay. They need to have stuff to get people back on their feet in terms of nutrition and in terms of other basic necessities.Fares Alghoul: In normal times, 500 truckloads of goods and food, and other supplies used to get into Gaza. Now this number is varying around 100 truck a day.

Sarah Holder: In a moment: We unpack the on-the-ground challenges across Gaza to distributing aid.And: What a ceasefire could mean for surveying what it would take — and what it would cost — to rebuild Gaza after the war.

Sarah Holder: The deadly incident in Gaza City in late February revealed how desperate the situation on the ground is… and also how reliant people in Gaza are on the Israeli military to distribute aid.

And it’s hard to overstate how fraught that dynamic is. First of all, many Israelis do not see taking care of Palestinian civilians as their responsibility, Ethan says.

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Ethan Bronner: After October 7th, which was a deeply traumatic day for Israelis, there’s not a great deal of patience for that conversation in Israel today. And in fact, one of the slightly shocking things being here is how little attention the misery in Gaza has drawn in Israel. It’s almost never on the front page. It’s never on television, and it’s just, you know, there’s a, there’s a war from their perspective because there are a hundred-plus hostages still held there. Uh, and there’s still just an incredible amount of emotional and political damage that this country is undergoing and feeling as a result of that attack.

Sarah Holder: But even if Israel wants as little involvement as possible, it controls what goes in and out of Gaza, and increasingly, how aid moves through it.

Fares and Ethan helped us trace the complex path of relief aid into and through the country. 

Fares Alghoul: The aid flows into Gaza through Israel and Egypt. In North Sinai, in Egypt, the Egyptians have, uh, opened, uh, an airport there, and  dozens of cargo airplanes and military airplanes land in the airport in Al Arish, and they send the aid to Gaza through trucks. On the Egyptian side, the lines of trucks waiting to enter Gaza are too long that they reached two kilometers of length.

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Ethan Bronner: There’s a dispute between the Israelis and the international aid organizations over who is responsible for the lack of sufficient aid. The aid organizations say that Israel has imposed a series of security checks that have been prohibitive in getting the stuff in. If you talk to the Israelis, they will tell you that they are able to scan 44 trucks an hour. The trucks that are stuck on the border are not their fault. It’s because of the other side. 

Sarah Holder: Once aid trucks make it into the territory, they face roads turned into rubble, and a lack of local security forces. In previous wars, Hamas helped to distribute aid during ceasefires. 

Fares Alghoul: Usually when there is a ceasefire, Hamas police forces will  go back into action. They will oversee and guard the truck — the aid convoys.

Sarah Holder: But during this war, Israel does not want Hamas to help distribute aid. 

Ethan Bronner: So one of the problems is that the entire social structure and political structure in Gaza is run by Hamas and has been run by Hamas and Israel considers those people who work for Hamas legitimate targets. So when some convoys began to come in and former Hamas police officers  were involved in guarding them and so forth, the Israelis took those people out, pushed them aside and said, you guys are Hamas people, you’re not going to do this. 

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Sarah Holder: The result is that aid isn’t reaching the people who need it most.

Ethan Bronner: Young men, some armed, some not, are most likely to get a hold of stuff, whether it’s dropped from the air or comes in by truck, uh, and those who are frail and elderly and children are least likely, and of course, they’re in greatest need. 

Sarah Holder: And so the Israeli military on the ground has had to be part of bringing these supplies to people.

Ethan Bronner: You can’t ignore the fact that they are the ruling force on the ground and it is therefore their responsibility, I think, morally and legally to make sure that the aid gets to the people who need it. 

Sarah Holder: Israel does have international aid organizations it could theoretically partner with during a ceasefire, but there are complications there, too. 

Ethan Bronner: There’s an enormous amount of bad blood between UNRWA and Israel.

Sarah Holder: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency — “UNRWA” — is one of the key partners bringing aid to Palestinians on the ground. A few weeks ago, the Israeli government alleged that some UNRWA staffers were involved in the October 7 attacks.

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Ethan Bronner: We’re talking about 10 or 12,000 or 13,000 employees of UNRWA. And we’re talking about, I think, a dozen or 20 known cases. So it’s not overwhelming. But because of the bad blood, cooperation is going to be hard. And there are a bunch of UNRWA staffers who were killed in Israeli bombardments in the first weeks of this war. I think 80 or 90, some very large numbers. So cooperation is going to be hard but vital. It needs to involve UNRWA staffers, UN staffers, and ICRC staffers, Red Cross and other normal, uh, international organizations. 

Sarah Holder: The best case scenario for Palestinian civilians trying to survive this war is that a six-week ceasefire deal happens, and it holds. And in that time, as aid workers tend to immediate nutrition, housing and medical needs, there might be a chance to assess the damage to the entire territory. And to start to consider what it would take to rebuild it.

Fares Alghoul: The six weeks may be enough only to assess the level of destruction, the scale of destruction. That’s it.

Sarah Holder: So it’s not enough time to rebuild…

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Fares Alghoul: Some Gazans estimate that if you let in heavy machinery and the workers and money to start rebuilding you need at least three years just to remove the rubble to collect the rubble before starting an actual rebuilding.  

Sarah Holder: Confronting that timeline brings us back to a fundamental question about a ceasefire: how long could it hold?

Ethan Bronner: One of the goals of the international community in creating the six week pause is to sort of hope to build on it, and to sort of get everyone to calm down. And to allow for this to keep going as a, you know, then to have another pause and to effectively create a day after situation.

Whether there’s a six week thing and then another another part of the war, and then an end to the war or a six week thing that begins the end of the war right away — there are a whole series of plans that are out there, being discussed in the U.S. and the Arab world and here in Israel about how to rebuild Gaza.  They are very complicated years-long plans. 

Sarah Holder: Looking ahead, Fares, do we have any sense of what it would take in terms of money and resources to truly rebuild Gaza after this war?

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Fares Alghoul: For this to happen Israel the blockade must be lifted in Gaza and the blockade cannot be lifted if Hamas is to remain in power.

Sarah Holder: The blockade Fares is referring to is an Israeli government-controlled restriction on what goods and materials can come into Gaza.

Fares Alghoul: Given the impact and the scale of the destruction, in order for a successful rebuilding process, all crossing points need to be open to operate 24 hours a day without any restrictions, the blockade has to be removed and billions of dollars need to get into Gaza in the form of construction materials, heavy machinery into start rebuilding. And all of this cannot happen without an agreement on the day one the day after the war. We don’t know who will run Gaza after the war.

Sarah Holder: It isn’t clear what most Palestinians on the ground want in terms of post-war leadership.

Fares Alghoul: That’s why there is no plan or vision for the reconstruction of Gaza as long as there is no agreement on who will run Gaza.

Sarah Holder: And if the ceasefire deal does happen,  but it doesn’t hold – people will be plummeted back into the situation they face now.

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Fares Alghoul: There was a ceasefire in November. And when it ended, the hostilities resumed momentarily. And they quickly resumed the fighting. And the suffering continued, was back again, the aid disappeared again, food disappeared again. And I think this is the similar scenario, unfortunately, that we may see in the coming  weeks after the ceasefire.

Sarah Holder: Meanwhile, Fares says his sister, like so many Palestinians, is trying to figure out contingency plans for her health and safety.

Fares Alghoul: She’s trying to work on a plan B, in case she is to deliver while she’s still in Gaza. I’m talking to a doctor there to see if he can help in case of an emergency. And she’s moving next week to stay at other friends’ who live closer to the hospital. 

Sarah Holder: My thoughts are with her and with your whole family. We really appreciate you bringing us that personal story because I know it must be hard.

Fares Alghoul: It is indeed.

Sarah Holder: So thank you so much.  I appreciate it. 

Fares Alghoul: Thank you so much. 

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