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Airdrops with aid are becoming a last resort as Palestinians starve

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Gaza City today, dozens of Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured. Gaza officials say Israeli forces opened fire on civilians rushing toward aid trucks. Israel says most of the casualties were run over by trucks or killed in the crowd. And that aid is critical. Because of Israeli restrictions and security concerns, there is so little food going into Gaza that aid agencies say children are literally starving to death. Some donors are resorting to delivering food by air. NPR's Jane Arraf went with the Jordanian military on a humanitarian airdrop into northern Gaza today.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: We're 17,000 feet in the air when one of the airmen points out a landmark.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: It's the Dead Sea. We've just crossed over into Israel, heading for northern Gaza. The plane is carrying wooden pallets loaded with cardboard boxes of food - rice, flour, sugar, tea, dates and milk, along with sanitary napkins. There are two of these planes in the air this morning, carrying more than seven tons of supplies. Jordan has taken the lead on dropping aid by air into Gaza, with partners that include France, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. Aid agencies say Gaza is on the verge of widespread famine. Airdrops like these, much more expensive and with less capacity than trucks, are a last resort.

One of the airmen has put on a harness. He's put on the kind of harness you do when you open the cargo doors in preparation for airdropping. It's hard to imagine how they're going to airdrop this. These are huge, heavy crates.

They open the cargo door and roll the pallets with packed parachutes on them out the back. We see them go out, but we can't see where they land. There are no foreign reporters on the ground in Gaza, either, to see what's happening there, as Israel bans those. Later, we find out that while most of the aid was dropped into northern Gaza, at least one of the vitally needed pallets was blown by the wind across the border into Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Pull. Pull.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Go. Go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.

ARRAF: Back on the ground, Jordanian military personnel continued loading the planes for more airdrops later in the day.

That's a front loader. He's just picked up a pallet of boxes that say ration pack. And the one he happened to pick up was Jordan's national dish, mansaf, with lamb. These are cardboard boxes packed in plastic crates, and they're meant to be waterproof.

Waterproof for airdrops into the sea, as Jordan has done off the coast of Gaza this week. Israel has drastically slowed down aid trucks going to Gaza, saying they need to be checked for weapons. Jordan has so far carried out 21 airdrops and facilitated seven others by partner countries. After we land, news breaks of dozens of Palestinians killed and hundreds wounded near Gaza City while trying to get food from aid trucks. Ahmed Al-Salem said he was waiting, as he does every day, for aid to arrive.

AHMED AL-SALEM: (Through interpreter) I was standing by the truck when I got hit by a bullet in my leg. When I fell to the ground, there was another shot fired, and it hit my hand.

ARRAF: He said there were so many injured he'd lay on the ground bleeding for two hours. Israel said most of the casualties were a result of the stampede when they were run over by aid trucks. The chief executive officer of Save the Children, Janti Soeripto, says the amount of aid going in is catastrophically low. Her organization is one of the biggest non-governmental aid groups.

JANTI SOERIPTO: Look. I was at the Rafah crossing a couple of weeks - four or five weeks ago, and even at the time I said, oh, surely it can't get any worse. And then every week, I've been proven wrong.

ARRAF: In the meantime, aid agencies are scrambling to figure out how to get more food into Gaza to prevent even wider tragedy. But they say the only solution is to open more land crossings and to end the war. Jane Arraf, NPR News, at the King Abdullah II Air Base near Zarqa, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.