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How the UN is recruiting locals in Gaza to secure food aid to a starving population

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

It's been difficult getting food to a starving population in Gaza in the middle of a war. Israeli border blockades have prompted desperate crowds to loot what little aid gets in. Now the United Nations is recruiting family clan leaders in Gaza to help. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports these leaders are also at the center of a pending question - who rules Gaza after the war?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's been chaotic and deadly getting food into the hardest-hit area of Gaza, the north.

HOUSSAM ABU GHAZALEH: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Twenty-four-year-old Houssam Abu Ghazaleh says he was with crowds yesterday, waiting for aid trucks bringing in flour, when he got shot. Gaza health officials say more than 20 people were killed and more than 100 injured in that incident. Israel says armed Palestinians opened fire when crowds rushed the trucks. Hamas says it was Israel. Either way, Abu Ghazaleh says he has to risk his life for this flour.

GHAZALEH: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: "What else can you do," he says. "You have to survive." Jamie McGoldrick is the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Gaza.

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Because of the desperation and because of - the supplies are so inconsistent and irregular, what you get is people attack those convoys and take the goods off the back for themselves and their families because they rarely see trucks.

ESTRIN: To stabilize this crisis, the U.N. has a plan. It wants to truck food aid to north Gaza every day and get leaders of prominent family clans to help distribute the food fairly. This week, McGoldrick from the U.N. met with 15 clan leaders - mukhtars - and has another meeting tomorrow.

MCGOLDRICK: And they would be responsible for the area they're in, and they would hopefully help us to distribute food in a fair and balanced way.

ESTRIN: Right now, aid is the most valuable currency in Gaza. Whoever controls its distribution holds power. But Gaza's traditional family clan leaders are in a tough spot. One clan leader, Abu Salman Al Moghani, tells NPR that Israel has been trying to recruit them, too, to take over some governing responsibilities. Clans have had conflicts with Hamas over the years, but clans don't want to be collaborating with Israel.

ABU SALMAN AL MOGHANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He says, "having a formal role or replacing any other entity is a red line." All this is related to the crucial question - who will rule Gaza after the war? The U.S. and Israel are at odds about which Palestinian leadership should come next. The U.S. wants the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants local figures. In this vacuum, people are hungry, and some food is on its way by sea. The group World Central Kitchen has a boat that's just arrived, and the U.S. military is sending a ship in weeks.

UMM MOHAMMED AL-HAMARNA: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: In Gaza City, 63-year-old grandmother Umm Mohammed al-Hamarna forages for leafy herbs to feed the children in her family. She tells NPR, what's this sea route with the U.S. deploying troops to feed us? Stop the war. We don't want food. Stop the war.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. 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.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.