When Asmaa al-Daher, a pharmacist and aid worker based in Turkey, went home to Gaza for a visit just over two weeks ago, she had little idea that one of the most brutal military campaigns her besieged home had ever faced was about to begin.
Although she was already experienced in providing humanitarian relief to victims of war through her work in Syria with Al-Ameen for Humanitarian Support, al-Daher was not prepared for what was to come in Gaza. The ongoing Israeli bombardment is like nothing many aid workers say they have ever seen.
“I have witnessed many wars during my life, but I have never witnessed anything like this,” the 27-year-old said in a voice message she recorded and sent to a colleague in Turkey by WhatsApp.
After being displaced five times inside Gaza within a couple of weeks, al-Daher is now in Rafah on the southern border with Egypt. In her five-minute WhatsApp recording, she tried to explain to Yasser al-Tarraf the reality she is living.
In a trembling voice and hurrying to get the words out before the internet failed, she said: “These are the worst days for the Palestinian people – genocide and massacres in all neighbourhoods.”
Al-Tarraf told Al Jazeera that while al-Daher was in Gaza only by chance, she has been working around the clock to help coordinate with local authorities on the ground to get resources and aid where they are needed most. He said he knows she understands well what the people of Gaza are going through.
“Our wound is one. We have witnessed displacement and killing in Syria, so our sympathy with Gaza is great.”
Al-Ameen, a Syrian organisation, has been working in the Gaza Strip for the past two years, providing humanitarian support, as well as vocational training. Since the bombing began two weeks ago, it has focused on helping to distribute food and resources.
A matter of life or death for the besieged
Al-Ameen is not the only Syrian aid organisation to have begun providing relief to victims of disasters in other countries, for instance, in Morocco to assist earthquake victims or the Libyan victims of flash floods.
During the years of war in Syria, dozens of volunteer organisations and aid teams emerged, driven by a desire to provide assistance to those in need. These relief efforts have quickly become highly professional operations through years of experience in dealing with the aftermath of bombing campaigns, displacements and repeated sieges that different Syrian areas have undergone. And recently, many of these organisations began operating in Gaza.
The Emergency Response Team, for example, is a humanitarian aid organisation working in northwestern Syria. Its head of operations, Dulama Ali, told Al Jazeera that because the region is largely outside of the control of the Syrian regime, it allows them some flexibility to respond outside the country. “We are trying to provide assistance to any country that needs it,” he said, adding that his team has been able to work in Lebanon, Libya and Morocco, and has been operating in Palestine since 2021.
Despite the unquestioned skills that humanitarian workers from Syria have, the situation they have found in Gaza presents daunting challenges, al-Tarraf said.
Until Friday, the Gaza Strip had languished under a total blockade for nearly two weeks – no food, water or medical resources were allowed in by Israel.
On Saturday, a small convoy carrying food and medical aid was allowed to cross into Gaza via the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border following the release of two American hostages by Hamas. Only 20 of the some 200 relief trucks which had assembled at the Rafah crossing were allowed to pass through, however.
The prolonged siege was unprecedented even for seasoned humanitarian aid workers used to operating in war zones, said al-Tarraf. “Closing the crossings was a turning point in the response because it means life or death for the besieged.”
He noted that relief organisations were unable to bring any aid into the Gaza Strip during the siege, so they relied on buying food supplies that were already within Gaza and redistributing them to those in need.
Intense bombing has also destroyed many warehouses holding provisions, and aid workers say they have only about half what they had to distribute before the siege began. Continuous displacement of citizens in Gaza has also made it extremely difficult to bring provisions to those in need as aid workers simply cannot reach them.
Some aid workers have lost their lives. Muhammad Qahwaji, a photographer who worked with Al-Ameen, was killed during the first days of the Israeli bombing. Al-Tarraf heard about his passing only recently and still does not know where Qahwaji died. Another Al-Ameen photographer Hassan al-Aswad was later injured after his family’s home was destroyed by a rocket.
‘Pray for us before we go’
Before relief workers in Gaza head off to perform their duties, they message their colleagues outside the Gaza Strip via WhatsApp or other messaging services. They ask them to pray for them as they bid farewell.
Molham Volunteering Team is another organisation which provides relief to Syrian victims of war but is now also trying to provide aid in Gaza. “There is no safe place within Gaza. We are cooperating with four organisations inside. All of them are in danger. And when they go out to perform their duties, they do not know if they will return or not,” Abdullah al-Khatib, head of media and fundraising, told Al Jazeera.
At least 4,651 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip during the ongoing Israeli military campaign, according to the latest statistics from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, nearly 70 percent of these victims were minors, women and the elderly. More than 14,000 people have also been injured.
Many aid organisations have diverted resources from their operations in Syria, despite low funding and humanitarian needs being at their highest levels in years.
“Since the beginning of our work [in Syria] in 2012, the Palestinians were among the first donors to Syria,” said al-Khatib. “There are entire housing projects funded by Palestinians in northwestern Syria.”
Like other Syrian aid operations, the Molham Team relies on private donations and all donations received for Syria can only be used for aid provided within Syria. Therefore, it has established a separate fund-raising arm for providing relief in Gaza.
“We have made our donation platforms available to everyone who wants to support Palestine – that is our duty,” said al-Khatib.