‘Gaza is being strangled:’ UNRWA calls for immediate ceasefire as humanitarian crisis deepens

We hear from UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifai about the dire humanitarian crisis and the critical lack of food, water, medicine and especially fuel available for the millions “stranded” in Gaza.

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UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestine refugees, says it is close to running out of supplies in Gaza, where it is sheltering over 600,000 displaced Palestinians. Israel has claimed that they cannot allow fuel to enter the besieged territory because of the supposed risk of it being appropriated by Hamas. We hear from UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifai about the dire humanitarian crisis and the critical lack of food, water, medicine and especially fuel available for the millions “stranded” in Gaza. UNRWA is calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and unrestricted aid corridors to address the crisis.


AMY GOODMAN: “Gaza is being strangled.” That’s the latest warning from the United Nations about the dire humanitarian in Gaza as Palestinian authorities say over 7,300 people have now been killed in Israel’s 21-day bombardment. More than a thousand Palestinians are believed to still be trapped under the rubble of buildings leveled by Israeli airstrikes and shelling. Earlier today, the head of UNRWA — that’s the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees — called for far more aid to be allowed into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing. This is UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini.

PHILIPPE LAZZARINI: As we speak, people in Gaza are dying. They are not only dying from bombs and strikes. Soon many more will die from the consequences of siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. Basic services are crumbling. Medicine is running out. Food and water are running out. The streets of Gaza have started overflowing with sewage. Gaza is on the brink of a massive health hazard, and the risk of diseases are looming.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 600,000 displaced Palestinians are now living in UNRWA shelters, but the agency says its operations are crumbling due to a lack of supplies. The United Nations says at least 12 hospitals in Gaza have been forced to stop operations, as have about two-thirds of Gaza’s 72 primary health clinics.

We go now to Amman, Jordan, where we’re joined by UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifai.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tamara. Can you talk about the situation in Gaza right now, what UNRWA is dealing with?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: No words can describe what the Gazans are dealing with. They are living a humanitarian situation of colossal magnitude. Let’s remember that we’re talking about 2.2 million people living on the strip. One million of them are already displaced from the north of the Gaza Strip to the south, crammed in UNRWA schools and other buildings that were not ready to receive such a huge amount of people, many of them having lost their homes, their loved ones and their families.

Inside these shelters, the conditions are really unsanitary, because we’re not able to produce sufficient clean water for people to drink and bathe themselves, because we don’t have fuel for the water desalination plants. We also do not have sufficient medicines and sufficient food to nourish, to give all these people. So we are truly facing a big, a huge humanitarian crisis.

And UNRWA, on top of it, has already lost 57 staff members, so I have lost 57 colleagues, some of them killed in the line of duty while they were helping others in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about these trucks that are supposedly of aid coming through the border? They said that they were going to allow many more. There’s just been a trickle of trucks. How many trucks and how much aid is needed? And what exactly is needed? Are we actually talking about 400 and 500 a day that are needed, and we’re talking about possibly eight trucks going over the border?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: Yes, Amy, we’re talking about a trickle. We’re also talking about a drop of aid going in, after shuttle diplomacy, marathons of political meetings at the highest level.

What UNRWA is calling for, the U.N. agency for Palestine refugees, is an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and a continuous, unimpeded and safe flow of aid. Eight trucks a day — today, 12 yesterday, 20 the day before — can these really be sufficient for a population of 2.2 million people, all stranded under complete seal? For context, before this crisis — and even then, nothing was normal — 500 trucks used to come into the Gaza Strip from Erez, from Israel, and from Rafah, from Egypt. A hundred of these trucks contained humanitarian and food assistance, because already before this conflict, 70% of people in Gaza relied on food assistance from the U.N. and lived under the poverty line.

So, really, a handful of trucks every day does nothing in the face of the immense needs in food, water, medical supplies, medicine and mostly fuel. Fuel has been completely barred. So, if we at UNRWA do not get fuel in the coming day or so, we will no longer be able to support hospitals and their life-saving machines and incubators, to support bakeries with bread — that are making bread, which is the only food that most Gazans are taking, are having. And we’re not able — we’re not going to be able to support the desalination plant, that brings clean water to people. And mostly, speaking of trucks, we need fuel to be able to pick up the supplies from the Rafah crossing. All this is at risk of total collapse if we do not get fuel.

AMY GOODMAN: Tamara Alrifai, how do you respond to the Israeli government saying that if they allow fuel in, it will be stolen by Hamas?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: I respond by saying we’re a credible humanitarian U.N. agency with very high due diligence standards and that we receive the fuel ourselves and store it in our warehouses and deliver it to our partners directly. We have a whole system — that the Israelis know about — that ensures that everything that we receive as UNRWA is used strictly for humanitarian purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tamara Alrifai, who is a spokesperson for UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees. Can you specifically talk about a situation in, for example, one of your hospitals? Explain who’s there. I mean, the fact that UNRWA, that there are 600,000 of the 2.4 or 2.3 million Palestinians, you are responsible, taking refuge in your facilities?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: I would like you to visualize a school, any regular school that usually receives 2,000 kids. And then think of that school as a place where 6,000 or 7,000 or 8,000 people, entire families, now live. It is a place that is not ready in terms of logistics and facilities and toilets and showers and access to electricity and water to receive 8,000 people. What we have done is, for the sake of some privacy, especially for women and girls, we have put the women and girls in the classrooms, where they can close a door, and the men and boys in the courtyard. These people rely 100% on our ability to provide electricity, water, food and medical attention to them while they’re in our shelters. Shelters are overcrowded. We’re already facing major public health risks because of that overcrowding and the lack of access of people to water and to the ability to wash themselves.

You spoke about hospitals. My colleague visited this morning Al-Shifa Hospital. That’s the biggest in hospital in Gaza and the oldest also and the one that usually receives more complicated cases. And during conflicts, it receives the war wounded. My colleague told me about dead bodies lying in the corridors, on the floor. There are no more body bags available in the hospital. There is almost no electricity, save for a few hours a day. The doctors are operating with the light from their cellphones.

Entire families are now living in that hospital in the middle of an emergency room, because they thought that going to the hospital or going to a U.N. and UNRWA building will give them protection, while in reality, until now, 42 of our buildings, our shelters, that are supposed to be protected, with the blue U.N. flag, were damaged during the fighting. Seven of these buildings received a direct hit.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you what Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn called for, the defunding of your organization, UNRWA.

SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN: Whether it is the U.N. Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees or any of the other entities that are involved with aid, Hamas is getting the money. We know from the relief agency that they have that $730 billion that has gone in there. This agency has hired Hamas-affiliated individuals. We know Hamas has stolen that money. We know that they have hidden weaponry in the facilities of this agency that are located there in Gaza. So, letting them have access to these funds is not a smart thing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. Can you respond to her allegation?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: I can respond by saying that every single person who works at UNRWA or receives UNRWA assistance is checked against the U.N. Security Council sanctions list, and that as a U.N. agency, we are bound by the values and principles of the U.N., mostly the principles of humanity, independence — independence from any political party — and neutrality.

We’ve heard these allegations, and we hear them routinely. But we do prove every time how UNRWA is principled, how it reaches people in need. We report back on all the funds we receive from every government, the U.S. government included. And in fact, the U.S. is currently our largest donor. It is back to being our largest donor after several years of defunding under the previous administration. And we’re extremely grateful for the cooperation and the good working relations we now have with the U.S. government, to whom we always give back full reports in transparency about all our operations, our activity, our activities, the location of our operations and how we spend U.S. taxpayers’ money.

AMY GOODMAN: Tamara Alrifai, finally, how do you respond to this controversy over the Health Ministry’s numbers around the death toll? President Biden raised it, said you can’t trust it because it’s run by Hamas. We quoted Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch saying not only has Human Rights Watch relied on these figures, and the United Nations, but the State Department itself has cited these numbers.

TAMARA ALRIFAI: Absolutely. And by the way, Omar Shakir and Tirana Hassan are my former colleagues, and I very much subscribe to what I heard on this show by them. It is true that the Ministry of Health has always provided figures that international groups and policy think tanks and researchers and governments have used. In any large catastrophe, even if it’s a natural catastrophe, figures cannot be exact science during the catastrophe. We will always give or take a few tens, but we will always also have an idea of the scale and scope. So, it is a few thousands. And many more numbers will come up once we have the full picture and all these bodies are removed from under the rubble.

AMY GOODMAN: Tamara Alrifai, we want to thank you for being with us, spokesperson for UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, speaking to us from Amman, Jordan.


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