US aid drops saved West Berliners. Why can't it do the same for Palestinians?

The 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift was a humanitarian operation carried out in the teeth of Soviet aggression. The US could, if it chose to, go to similar lengths in Gaza

General view taken on November 08, 1948 showing the construction of the Berlin Tegel airport in the Berlin French-controlled zone, ordered by the French Military authority for the Berlin airlift during the Russian blockade which ended on 11 May 1949. (Photo by - / ACME / AFP)
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Seventy five years ago, America, Britain and France won a crucial victory against the Soviet Union that would shape much of the subsequent Cold War narrative. However, it was not a military accomplishment. In the spring of 1949, a humanitarian mission – the Berlin Airlift – overcame the Soviet blockade of West Berlin.

At that time, about two million people lived in the Western part of the divided German capital, which was then in the middle of Soviet-controlled territory. During the airlift, which ran for 15 months until September 1949, the population received more than 2 million tonnes of supplies, including fuel and food, delivered on more than 200,000 flights operated by the US-led Allies.

When the Allies created the deutschmark the previous summer, a precursor to the establishment of the West German state, the Soviet Union, which controlled what would become East Germany, ordered the blocking of all trade and transport routes into West Berlin. Electricity was also cut. West Berliners were at the risk of starvation.

“There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin and it must not be evaluated on that basis,” said Gen Lucius Clay, the administrator of US-occupied Germany at that time. “We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of American intent.”

In short, the Americans would not abandon West Berliners to their fate, regardless of the obstacles.

Until the US intervention in the summer of 1948, the relationship between the Americans and the West Germans had been one characterised by an occupier-occupied dynamic. After the Berlin Airlift began, it was catalysed and the Americans were seen as a protective force. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union – led by Joseph Stalin – succeeded only in speeding up the strengthening of a Western front against it, solidifying public opinion that regarded the country as a global bully. Ultimately, the Soviets miscalculated, failing to wear down the population of West Berlin as intended.

Today, there are more people in peril in the Gaza Strip than there ever were in West Berlin three quarters of a century ago. The UN has warned that famine will hit the Palestinians by the end of May if a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel is not reached, and urgent aid delivered.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the BBC this week that this was the first time an entire population had been classified as being at “severe levels of acute food insecurity”.

“We also see … the totality of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance … compare that to Sudan, about 80 per cent of the population there is in need of humanitarian assistance; Afghanistan, about 70 per cent … this only underscores both the urgency, the imperative, of making this a priority,” he added.

Today, there are more people in peril in the Gaza Strip than there ever were in West Berlin three quarters of a century ago

Will the US find the will to make the current crisis in Gaza a priority, regardless of the challenges – just as it did with West Berlin?

It is worth noting how Mr Blinken mentioned Afghanistan. Since the Taliban returned to power following the US withdrawal in August 2021, an existing humanitarian crisis has been made worse.

In 1948, when the West Germans were at risk of ending up in a similar position to that of Gazans today, the US and its allies were highly motivated to attempt a historic and very risky humanitarian mission to save them.

For Gaza, the Berlin Airlift could be a powerful precedent from history. The US could, if it chose to, go to similar lengths to provide a decisive humanitarian solution there. Arguably, the risks of attempting the Berlin Airlift were much graver; the Soviets had a major military presence in Europe and if any one of those planes the Americans sent had been shot down, it could have triggered another world war.

Back then, it was not a given that the US would intervene, and it was far from certain they would succeed when they did. The odds seemed stacked in favour of the Soviets.

Right now, the stakes the US would need to weigh against doing what is needed are almost entirely political. There is almost no danger to American lives from any direct effort to expand the supply of aid to Gaza.

Although there is a plan for the US military to help build a temporary pier in Gaza to increase aid deliveries by sea, these are not expected to be operational until early May. There are also question marks about how adequate the scale of the initiative will be. Meanwhile, as the opportunity for action slips away, the US remains a committed supporter of Israel’s military intervention in the Palestinian enclave.

Michael Fakhri, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, hit the nail on the head about the contradictions at play when he said recently "the time when countries use air drops and these maritime piers is usually, if not always, in situations when you want to deliver humanitarian aid into enemy territory".

Published: March 22, 2024, 4:00 AM