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Top UN relief agency rep describes increasingly desperate conditions in Gaza

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week, we expect to mark a milestone in Gaza - 20,000 people dead from Israel's offensive. That's according to the Gaza Health Ministry. That is about 1 out of every 115 people in Gaza killed. Neighborhoods have been flattened. Hospitals, shelters are overwhelmed. Well, Philippe Lazzarini is the commissioner-general for UNRWA. That is the United Nations relief agency that aids Palestinians. He is on the line from Amman. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PHILIPPE LAZZARINI: Good to be with you, 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.

LAZZARINI: And 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 Nation shelter. They were overcrowded. They were living in unsanitary condition, sleeping on the floor without mattress, without blanket. 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 hundred of thousand 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 shelter. These are schools. These are warehouses. These are health centers. But you have also hundred 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?

KELLY: 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 strip 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 animal.

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.

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: You're describing - this is a crossing between Gaza and Israel. The focus, up to now, has been on the Rafah Crossing from Egypt into Gaza.

LAZZARINI: That's exactly. So until now, we had the crossing from the Egyptian side, Rafah. Since a few days, we are also using, for some trucks, the crossing coming from Kerem Shalom, which comes from the Israeli side.

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. I want to let you listen to what he said and then let you respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG: They could have tripled the aid to Gaza. They could have brought many more medication. They could resolve their differences with their local partners and got it in. But the blame is put on Israel, and the media will always put on Israel. So please, dear media, go and check. How come tens of thousands of humanitarian aid and trucks do not go into Gaza every day?

KELLY: 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 truck 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 truck 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 for this for a minute 'cause 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: Well, listen, you have many bottleneck. 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: That is Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general for the U.N. agency UNRWA, and he is recently back from a trip to Gaza. 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.

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
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.

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