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Remember Mogadishu? The Battle for UN Food Aid Replayed in Gaza

Remember the battle for Mogadishu? The incident became immortalized by the 2001 blockbuster Black Hawk Down. So why is a late 20th-century battle for a city in East Africa relevant today? What can this episode in history teach us about the modern-day conflict in Gaza?

The war in Gaza is fervently contentious, and there are enough stenographers of human suffering who are more than eager to pass along their biases about it. Here, rather than assign blame or advocate policy, I wish only to offer the events in Mogadishu as an apt analogy for the tragic events occurring in Gaza. The value of history is that it shows us repeated patterns of behaviour, which we can extrapolate onto the current conflict.

For the last several decades, Somalia has unfortunately spiralled from one crisis to another, never seemingly able to get on solid footing before another catastrophe knocks the country down again.

After gaining independence from the Italians in 1960, a military dictator, Mohammed Siade Barre, came to power with the backing of the Soviet Union.

Despite making initial progress in modernizing the state, Siade Barre made the calamitous mistake of invading Ethiopia in 1977, based on irredentist land claims to a ‘greater Somalia’. The Ogaden War, as it became known, lasted into 1978. It devastated the Somali military and laid the groundwork for internecine conflict to boil over into civil war.
Although Somalia enjoyed initial success, it ultimately lost the war. And in the process, it had empowered the tribal clans, as the regular army had armed the various tribal militias to fight the Ethiopians. Now there was a deluge of well-armed and combat-hardened men who returned home. To make matters worse, a severe drought hit East Africa, which in turn brought about a terrible famine.

This slowly unravelled the centralization of power, from the political and economic elite in the capital to the much more numerous—and impoverished—rural tribes. As a result, dictator Siad Barre became increasingly repressive and began feuding with the tribes, leading him eventually to flee Somalia in 1991.

Instead of coming together after ousting an unpopular dictator, tribal militias (who were already heavily armed, experienced, and now angry at the central government) chose the path of violence, not peace. An explosion of internecine tribal conflicts swept the country following the dictator’s removal. As a result, “this situation led to a struggle over food supplies with each clan raiding the storehouses and depots of the others. Coupled with a drought, these actions brought famine to hundreds of thousands of the nation’s poor.” (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

This was a fulcrum for international intervention. As a result of the conditions besetting Somalia and its beleaguered inhabitants, and in response to the increasingly deteriorating situation in Somalia in 1992, the UN passed a resolution authorizing humanitarian relief mission. Then, in the same year, U.S. President Bill Clinton launched Operation Somali Intervention, the stated goals of which were to facilitate the transport of food aid into Somalia to alleviate/prevent famine and to provide security and stability to a war-torn nation.

The intended result of international intervention in the form of UN food aid was for the conflict to fizzle out rather than escalate by alleviating arguably the main underlying issue stoking the flames of civil war: food insecurity. However, not only was the population being decimated, but the initial lack of US military protection for food aid led to it being ransacked and controlled by gangs and tribes. The logic was that the food would placate the city-based mob and lower rural farmer banditry, thereby lowering the tit-for-tat tribal raids for livestock.

Tribal warlords ran rampant in the power vacuum. Furthermore, despite an agreed ceasefire agreement over the delivery of aid, UN food convoys in Somalia were repeatedly attacked, and its aid workers assaulted.

Do broken ceasefires sound familiar?

In practical terms, the widespread prevalence of weaponry, together with the decentralized state of affairs in Somalia, meant there was no single entity to negotiate with. Rather, there were a myriad of tribes, gangs, clans, and bandits, all of which had their own agendas.

Summarizing their mission failure in Somalia, the official U.S. Army Center of Military History wrote:

“Although private and volunteer relief organizations established refugee camps to try to prevent widespread deaths from starvation, they could not handle the massive amounts of aid and the requisite security structure that were needed. International relief organizations paid protection money to the warlords as they tried to distribute what donated food supplies did arrive. More often than not, such supplies never reached the hands of those who needed them but instead were confiscated by the warlords who distributed or sold them to enhance their own power and prestige. The general misery was only compounded by the brutality of the Somali clans toward their rivals and the sporadic outbreaks of actual fighting.” (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Starvation, political chaos, the squabbling factions, the needs of the civilian populace being put last, the failure of occupying forces to successfully conduct diplomacy among the factions and establish a lasting peace—notice any similarities to Gaza?

Verifying the information coming out of war-torn Gaza has been difficult, with propaganda running rampant, especially online. Indeed, over the course of this conflict, the prevalence of disinformation and misinformation has led to large-scale skepticism and debate over the veracity of various alleged atrocities, bombings, shootings, etc. Although each incident is important, they are too numerous to list, one example being the alleged IDF bombing of a hospital in northern Gaza. Despite most of the media jumping immediately to blame Israel, several different expert analyses all pointed to a misfire of a rocket from Gaza, ignited by a group known as The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

Israeli history can also give context to the present Gaza conflict. On the 6th of February 2009, it was widely reported that the UN had to suspend food aid to Gaza because Hamas had illegally stolen it. The UN confirmed the allegations at the time, stating:

“The main United Nations relief agency responsible for feeding 900,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza today suspended all imports of desperately needed aid after Hamas confiscated hundreds of tons of food, the second such seizure in three days…. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded that Hamas immediately return the food to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which said its suspension would remain in force until such a return and ‘the Agency is given credible assurances from the Hamas government in Gaza that there will be no repeat of these thefts.’ ” (United Nations Website)
Another example is from 2016 when the Shin Bet (Israeli Intelligence Service) accused the chief of World Vision Charity operations in Gaza of funnelling roughly 60% of money intended for food aid, infrastructure, and economic development toward Hamas. Although the charity suspended the worker, they later denied the accusations as false.

A third example is from 2021, when Hamas exposed in their own propaganda video, no less, that they had intentionally dug up irrigation pipelines the EU had financed, in order to build rockets. (The video was published by the Telegraph.)

These three examples, in addition to the plethora of videos and photos from the current conflict (the validity of which you can assess for yourself), show Hamas has a repeated pattern of seizing civilian resources, and using them to fuel their war effort. Indeed, the UN convoys literally fuel the Hamas war effort, as the supplies often include diesel or petrol.

In summary: What happened in Somalia is analogous to the current war in Gaza. Somalia, like Hamas, for decades over-invested much of its resources into the military rather than into civilian economic development. They then began a conflict they lost. Famine later gripped the country as the government collapsed. Convoys filled with food and other essentials from agencies such as the UN tried to provide aid to a combat zone to alleviate suffering. However, this proved to be difficult as the aid had to be delivered to unstable regions at best, and active warzones at worst. This, in turn, necessitated the military protection of relief aid in some capacity. All of which was and is a recipe for disaster.

Moreover, it is problematic because the food aid is often hijacked by armed thugs, who can then use resources they have illegally appropriated to grow their influence and power base in the region, thereby stepping into the vacuum of power created, in part by external forces.

Mao Zedong once said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and this can be no truer than during armed conflict. Although it may seem rather simplistic, in Mogadishu and in Gaza, food aid is ultimately escorted into a region by armed men. If those same armed men do not protect and distribute the vital food aid, someone else with a gun will come along and take the lifesaving essentials being delivered. Disaster and human tragedy become inevitable in such circumstances, which is why it should come as no shock when we see repeated similar scenes to what happened in Al-Rashid on February 29th —macably dubbed the “flour massacre.”

So, what can be done? Here is one prescriptive point: If the IDF fails to step in and protect the food convoys for the entirety of the round-trip in and out of Gaza, local Gazans will step into the power vacuum. Sometimes inaction has as many consequences as action, and the current situation clearly cannot continue; action is needed in some form. Given the opportunity, some militant group—whether it be the remnants of Hamas, the PIJ or possibly a new organization—will take control of food aid, and that will give them influence and power in Gaza, just as the militias grew in power in Somalia. And Somalia has never truly recovered. It is immensely worrying that the past mistakes that occurred in Somalia echo throughout this war in Gaza.

 

About the Author
I did my BA at Mount Allison University in Canada, studying History & Political Science. Thereafter, I began to pursue a degree in Journalism but took a hiatus from school to accept numerous job offers. I got my start in writing working for ERETZ: the Magazine of Israel in Tel Aviv, Israel. From my homeland Canada I have been published by both the National Post, and Jewish Post & News. The paper I currently write for and help publish is The Jewish Post -the successor to the now defunct paper: The Jewish Post & News. As a researcher and writer, I believe that applying historical context along with an in-depth knowledge of regional identity and political ideologies is the best way to identify and explain current geopolitical trends as well as forecast growing tension and unrest in future areas of conflicts -militarily, politically, and economically.
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