Gaza War: If There's A Lesson From The Berlin Airlift It's That Political Will Is Required To Avoid A Humanitarian Catastrophe


Author: Abdullah Yusuf

(MENAFN- The Conversation) The crisis in Gaza transcends mere statistics to reveal a deep human tragedy that continues to escalate. According to the latest figures from the Gaza health ministry , the conflict has claimed the lives of over 30,000 individuals, including 12,300 children and 8,400 women. Additionally, 60,000 pregnant women are struggling with malnutrition.

The United Nations has indicated that Gaza, which it now decribes as having “simply become uninhabitable” , requires at least 300 aid trucks daily to meet the urgent needs of its population.

Meanwhile, Israel's allies in the west grapple ineffectually with their shattered image as protectors of human rights. They supply arms to Israel while simultaneously sending air drops of food that are but a drop in the ocean to the humanitarian needs on the ground.

The Red Cross estimates that the entire 2.2 million population is experiencing food insecurity at crisis levels or above, with some families reportedly sharing just“one can of food every 48 hours”. At the moment the delivery of vital aid supplies, such as food, water, medication and shelter, is reportedly being hindered at checkpoints by Israeli officials – although Israel has denied this.

Humanitarianism is flourishing. It has developed into an industry by employing hundreds of thousands of individuals. But whether this has translated into a more effective aid system is questionable.

In 2018, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Partnership (ALNAP) – a group of more than 100 government and non-government humanitarian organisations operating globally – estimated that there were 570,000 field personnel involved in humanitarian missions. This figure doesn't include those employed at headquarters or directly by donors.

This expansive network is part of a sector where operational budgets have grown exponentially. For example, the funding for the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) has escalated dramatically from US$1.2 billion (£945 million) in 1997 to more than US$14 billion in 2022. Yet despite this, the people of Gaza face what most observers now agree is an imminent chance of famine.

Perhaps the most apt historical parallel is that of the Berlin airlift in 1948 , when a concerted effort by Allied forces – principally the US and Great Britain – were able to feed and supply 2 million west Berliners for a year.

Feeding west Berlin in 1948

The Soviet blockade of west Berlin by the Soviet Union emerged as a defining moment in the early cold war period. Soviet forces attempted to coerce west Berlin by cutting off all land and water routes into the sectors of Berlin being administrated by the allied powers France, Britain and the US.

This aggressive move was designed to force the withdrawal of the newly introduced Deutsche mark and to challenge the allies' resolve to maintain their presence in Berlin.

In response, the Allies initiated a massive airlift of goods into west Berlin. It was a monumental logistical operation. The operation, codenamed“Operation Vittles” , involved the use of air corridors over the Soviet occupation zone to deliver essential supplies such as food, fuel and medicine to the people living in the western part of the city.

At its peak, the airlift saw planes landing in west Berlin every 30 seconds , a testament to the allies' dedication to the mission and a clear rebuke to the Soviet blockade.


The Soviet Union attempted to stop food and supplies reaching the western zones of Berlin in 1948. Niday/Alamy

The airlift was not just a military and logistical achievement; it was a significant humanitarian effort.

Over more than a year, the allies' air forces conducted over 278,000 flights, delivering nearly 2.3 million tonnes of provisions , including food, fuel, and other essential supplies. Initially perceived as an overwhelming challenge due to Berlin's vast area and its people's significant needs, the operation swiftly transformed into a symbol of hope for the people of west Berlin.

The airlift's success extended beyond just aiding Berlin's people. It helped ease cold war tensions, showcasing the west's capacity for a coordinated, global response to Soviet hostility. This operation underscored the power of global cooperation with a humanitarian focus, setting a model for managing similar situations in the future with compassion and collective effort.

Lessons for Gaza

Applying lessons from Berlin to the current context of Gaza requires a sophisticated, multifaceted approach that goes beyond the logistical challenges associated with aid delivery. This approach must also tackle the political barriers that exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

The particular circumstances of Gaza, indicate that humanitarian airdrops are ineffective and costly . They would be unnecessary if the options for ground access were not being restricted by Israeli forces.

Ensuring that blockades and starvation are not used as methods of warfare will require a robust international response. Israel's allies must ensure accountability and check that international humanitarian law is being observed and upheld at all times. It is far from clear this is the case in Gaza.

Read more: Gaza: weaponisation of food has been used in conflicts for centuries – but it hasn't always resulted in victory

The desperate plight of the population of Gaza suggests that in this conflict humanitarian aid has become politicised. In 1948, when there was a clear-cut political consensus in the west that the people of Berlin must be helped in their hour of need, it was possible to mount and sustain such an enormous operation.

To do so again with the people of Gaza will take the same political will. It's not entirely clear, at least not yet, from the leaders of Israel's western allies, that this political will exists. This is where a lesson can be drawn from Berlin, and it is a scandal that it is taking so long for this to happen.


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