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Inside the army unit that handles the humanitarian needs of Gaza civilians

The Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA) for Gaza has become the lifeline between 2 million civilians stuck inside a war zone and a military battling an unyielding, brutal terrorist organization

SDE TEIMAN, IDF Base, Southern Israel – Inside a handful of makeshift trailers, in the heart of an expansive and bustling army base near Beersheva, a small group of standing and reserve soldiers sits in several rooms monitoring TV screens, computers and telephones trying to keep a watchful eye on the living situation for the two million Palestinian civilians inside the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.  

Despite claims by international organizations and countries, including the U.S., that Israel is not doing enough to prevent a catastrophic humanitarian crisis within the Palestinian enclave, the soldiers at Sde Teiman are working around the clock to ensure that hundreds of trucks filled with aid cross into the Strip, that drinking water from Israel keeps flowing to the southern part of the territory, that fuel for desalination plants, hospitals and bakeries makes it inside safely, and that aid workers carrying out essential duties remain protected under international law.  

The unit, officially titled the Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA) for Gaza, is a division of COGAT (the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories), the military body that in times of peace works with international groups and the Palestinian Authority to facilitate entry for Palestinian civilians into Israel and helps keep the tiny Palestinian economy, including in Gaza, afloat.  

Now, after more than three months of war, the soldiers that make up the CLA for Gaza have become a lifeline between civilians stuck precariously in a war zone and a military that is battling an unyielding, brutal terrorist organization.

“We are carrying out our government’s policies towards the civilian population in Gaza,” Col. Moshe Tetro, who heads the CLA for Gaza, told Jewish Insider during a tour of the unit’s busy headquarters.

Col. Moshe Tetro

“Sadly, war is a very, very ugly thing and it is even worse when civilians are stuck in the middle of it,” he continued, adding that the task is heightened because the operation is taking place in a small, densely packed territory and because Hamas’ military strategy is to fight from within heavily populated areas, as well as facilities that are meant to be beyond the reach of war, such as schools and hospitals.

In the two years prior to Oct. 7, when Hamas launched its deadly terror attack on southern Israel sparking the current war, Tetro recounted that the CLA’s work in Gaza was the most productive it had ever been. Policies promoted by former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, now a member of Israel’s war cabinet, enabled close to 20,000 Palestinian laborers to enter Israel daily and permits for those seeking medical care in Israel were increased.

The procedures were working so well that Israel was already planning to expand and streamline the main passageway from the Strip, the Erez crossing, with fast-track, computerized turnstiles. In addition, the colonel told JI, Israel had bolstered its support for the local Gaza economy, allowing greater export of textiles and fish – two of the enclave’s main industries – and approving more goods to enter than ever before.

“We were in the best situation that we’d been in recent years,” said Tetro. “Hamas’ attack on Oct.7 destroyed it all.”

When Tetro talks about the devastation caused by Hamas, he is not only referring to the brutal attack in which 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed or the 240 individuals who were kidnapped, with more than 130 still being held hostage in Gaza, but also to the destruction the Iranian-backed terror group waged on the fragile relationship that existed between Israel and Gaza and the assault on Palestinian civilian life directly. 

During the Oct. 7 attack, he said, Hamas destroyed much of the civilian infrastructure that served its own population, including water pipes, electrical lines, desalination plants and communication networks.

Additionally, said Tetro, Hamas destroyed the CLA’s home base that was previously located at the Erez crossing; since Oct. 7, the unit operates from temporary offices in Sde Teiman. The terrorists also murdered three CLA soldiers and kidnapped three more, he said. Two of those taken hostage were later killed by terrorists in Gaza.

Despite the physical and psychological blow to the Israeli military on Oct. 7, the hard-hit unit regrouped quickly, refocusing its activities from the usual peacetime operations to full wartime footing.

Among the trailers now allocated to the unit, soldiers take charge of various humanitarian tasks aimed at easing daily life for an estimated 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, most of whom, according to international aid agencies, are displaced and the majority of whom have had their homes destroyed in the fighting.

Soldiers from the Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA) for Gaza unit, a division of COGAT (the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories).

The first bustling office, labeled the “humanitarian situation room,” is divided into four main areas focusing on health care, including existing hospitals, field hospitals and ambulances; infrastructure — water pipelines, sewage lines and fiber optic cables; foreign relations or coordinating missions for international aid workers; and economic matters, overseeing the movement of hundreds of aid trucks that enter via two main checkpoints and navigate their way across the embattled Strip.

According to CLA data, more than 220 trucks have entered Gaza each day for the past several days, in contrast to the first few weeks of the war, when fewer than 20 per day went in. Soldiers working on the desk told JI that Israel’s chief responsibility is for the security checks – ensuring weapons and so-called “dual use” items are not smuggled in – at crossings located in Nitsana and Kerem Shalom.

Though there is broad consensus about the need to prevent weapons and materiel from being smuggled into Gaza through aid shipments, many of the disagreements that Israel has with humanitarian aid organizations focus on these “dual use” items, which can be used for innocent civilian purposes or to power Hamas’ war machine. Oxygen concentrators, for instance, are regularly used in hospitals for legitimate medical purposes, but they can also be used to provide oxygen for subterranean tunnels. In some cases, these kinds of products are allowed into Gaza, while other times they are blocked by Israeli authorities, and not always for clearly explained reasons.

Once Israeli security officials sign off on the cargo at the crossing points, Israel hands over the aid to international and local agencies working inside Gaza for distribution, who try to get it to those in need.

In some instances, documented on social media, however, Hamas, which has ruthlessly governed the territory for more than 16 years, takes the shipments for their own fighters. Aid agencies – and civilians – appear powerless to stop them. 

In addition to facilitating the passage of the aid, which mostly arrives from the al-Arish port in northern Sinai and contains mainly goods provided by Muslim and Arab countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, the soldiers also pay close attention to the needs of the civilian population.

Via daily updates from aid workers in the field and even from Gazan contacts working in various sectors, the CLA soldiers try to ensure that the most vital aid, whether it be flour or yeast for bakeries or anesthesia and other medications heading to hospitals, are prioritized.

Next door, soldiers in the “research and information situation room,” spend the day – and the night – monitoring open-source information such as news reports and social media coming out of Gaza, or speaking to contacts on the ground, to determine what other essential needs might arise.

For example, said Tetro, last week the manager of a hospital in Gaza informed local media that his facility was set to run out of fuel and that the hospital would be forced to close within a few hours.

“What did we do?” he said. “We picked up the phone to Palestinian medical and U.N. officials and asked them what was happening. We knew there had been no restrictions on fuel going to that hospital and that there was enough fuel there to last for a few months.”

Tetro said his team suspected that the hospital manager was peddling Hamas propaganda, as part of the terror groups information war against Israel, and, he added, “I called their bluff.” He told the aid agencies they had five hours to figure out what was really happening – within four hours, said Tetro, the hospital was suddenly reconnected to the electricity and operating again.

“The bottom line is that we are constantly facing false reports, some of which come directly from officials in international agencies,” Tetro told JI, as we entered the final room that is involved in coordinating the operation on the ground, including receiving updates from a network of CLA soldiers embedded with IDF combat units.

On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that “the long shadow of starvation is stalking the people of Gaza – along with disease, malnutrition and other health threats.”

“I am deeply troubled by the clear violation of international humanitarian law that we are witnessing,” he continued, making no mention of Israel’s unique efforts to take care of a civilian population even as it battles that population’s governing body.

Guterres, as well as a host of aid organizations, issued an urgent appeal on Monday for Israel to open more entry points into Gaza and called on the Jewish state to utilize its own port in Ashdod, which has a greater capacity than al-Arish, to receive the incoming aid.

A spokesperson for COGAT explained that Israel had already opened another checkpoint and another aid entry point at the Kerem Shalom crossing and has even increased the inspection capabilities at the Nitsana crossing with an additional scanner.

“We are checking more trucks than the U.N. is able to accommodate in Gaza,” the spokesperson told JI.

“We are not surprised by such comments,” Tetro said. “We know these agencies systematically lie and use false narratives, but we are in close contact with international and Palestinian officials in order to assess the civil situation in the Gaza Strip.”

In unwavering words, the colonel added that, based on real-time data, “there is no shortage of water inside Gaza,” and, he said, there is no shortage of food.

“If [the water shortage is] causing disease, then why do those diseases not exist?” asked Tetro. “None of the data we have, including that from the international agencies, has identified any outbreaks of diseases.”

Still, Tetro added, CLA had permitted vaccines to enter Gaza – in the event of a polio outbreak or the spread of other foreboding diseases.

“I’m not saying the situation in Gaza is pleasant,” he continued. “But there is a great distance between the truth and the lies and propaganda that sadly the international community and also the media promotes, choosing to repeat the narrative of a barbaric terror organization without even checking the facts.”

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