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An inside account of delivering aid to Gaza: 'Each time it's getting more desperate'

Palestinians line up for a meal in Rafah on Wednesday.
Hatem Ali
/
AP
Palestinians line up for a meal in Rafah on Wednesday.

This week, experts expect to mark a milestone in Gaza — 20,000 people dead from Israel's offensive, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

That translates to about 1 out of every 115 people in Gaza killed. Neighborhoods have been flattened, hospitals and shelters are inundated and overwhelmed, and families have been decimated.

With signs of a potential truce for a hostage exchange between Israel and Hamas, human rights groups are expressing how dire the circumstances have become for people still in Gaza.

Philippe Lazzarini is the commissioner-general for UNRWA — the United Nations relief agency that aids Palestinians — and he spoke to All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly on Wednesday to share more about the situation in Gaza.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Interview highlights

Mary Louise Kelly: So I know that you're just back from Gaza. You were there last week. This was your third visit since war began. And I saw where you said that every time you go back, you think it cannot get worse. I gather it gets worse.

Philippe Lazzarini:

Each time it's getting worse. Each time it's getting more desperate. Last time I went was on the eve of the truce.

At that time, I have seen how desperate people were in the United Nations shelter. They were overcrowded. They were living in unsanitary condition, sleeping on the floor without mattresses, without blankets. Winter is coming. And when I went last week, I thought that what I saw before was already heartbreaking enough.

But an offensive has been expanded now in the south of Gaza Strip, pushing additional hundreds of thousands of people to the south in Rafah. And we have today more than 1.2 million people across the Gaza Strip sheltered in our premises. These are not even shelters. These are schools. These are warehouses. These are health centers. But you have also hundreds of thousand of people now just living in the open.

Kelly: So the shelter is already overflowing and thousands and thousands of people living outside the shelter. Is there one story, one person who you spoke to that'll stay with you?


Lazzarini:
Well, the story is the story of the man who is a father of children who basically started to burst into tears when he told me that he feels that his dignity has been stripped because he cannot take care of his children anymore, since they are begging every day for a sip of water, for a loaf of bread. They are queuing hours to go to toilets, and basically they feel treated like a human animals.


Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.


Kelly: Talk to me about food. I understand it's become so scarce that people are scrambling for it, fighting for it if they see a food truck go past.

Lazzarini: Oh, this is also something completely new, and I warned more than once that very soon people will not just die because of the bombardment, but they will die because of a combination of weakened immunity, disease outbreak and hunger.

And now most of the people I was encountering during my visit were telling me, "Listen, I haven't eaten for the last day or two days. Sometimes we have to skip for three days."

So in an environment like this, indeed, people are so desperate that they try to jump on our truck and take the food from the truck and just eat it from the street.

Palestinians inspect a house after it was hit by an Israeli bombardment on Rafah.
Fatima Shbair / AP
/
AP
Palestinians inspect a house after it was hit by an Israeli bombardment on Rafah.


Kelly:
Where do your efforts stand to get more food in, to get more medicine in, any aid into Gaza?

Lazzarini: Our goal is very clear. We need the full opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel. Two days ago, it reopened. Few trucks came in. But unfortunately, it's not yet at scale to respond to such a massive humanitarian crisis.

Kelly:I interviewed the president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, yesterday and I asked him about aid. He was very critical of the U.N. He essentially blamed the U.N. for the bottleneck in getting aid into Gaza. He says the U.N. could be getting more aid in if you wanted. How do you respond to that?

Lazzarini: Well, that's true. We could have much, much more if Israel would allow more trucks to come in.

Today, for example, we had only 46 truck coming from Kerem Shalom and a hundred trucks coming from Rafah. So basically, despite the reopening of the crossing, we do not have overall additional trucks coming into the Gaza Strip. What we need is something much more meaningful because what we are getting today is far from enough to respond to such a crisis.

Kelly: I just want to stay on for this for a minute because it's obviously incredibly frustrating to hear Israel is blaming the U.N. I just heard you say, you know, if Israel would open the crossings and keep them open, we could get more in. How do you break the impasse?

Lazzarini: Listen, you have many bottlenecks. First of all, you have still ongoing bombardment — roads which have been destroyed, trucks which have been destroyed.

When trucks come in, they are not allowed to go to the final destination. They have to download and then you have to re-offload.

If we would let trucks go into the final destination, you can let trucks come in in the hundreds, and this would not be a problem. So the bottleneck is a series of issues related to the conflict but also to administrative procedure.

Kelly: Before I let you go, I want to ask about your team, your staff, because I read that it's 135 UNWRA staff have been killed in Gaza since the war began. How many do you still have there and how are they doing?

Lazzarini: So indeed, we have 135 people who have been killed since the beginning of the war. This has been devastating for the agency. Today, we still have between 3000 to 5000 staff working on a daily basis. But we should never forget, they are living the same condition than anyone else they are supporting. They are also struggling to find a shelter, they are struggling to find water, electricity and food. And many of the staff are, in fact, coming to work with their children, because basically what they say is, "I want to be sure that either I see my child at the end of the day, or if we have to die, we will die together."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
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