Gaza: Lifesaving aid convoy through Rafah can’t be a ‘one off’
An aid convoy of some 20 trucks poised to go into Gaza carrying lifesaving supplies should not be a “one off” a spokesperson for the UN Palestine refugee agency (UNRWA) stressed on Friday.
Tamara Alrifai, UNRWA Director of External Relations, told UN News that Gaza needs a “continuous flow of aid” along with safe humanitarian access that allow relief workers to reach those in need.
Ms. Alrifai also described that the UN agency has some 13,000 people on the ground in the enclave – a vast majority of them Gazans themselves – who, despite having been displaced and living in shelters themselves, are determined to keep working and deliver assistance.
As the Israeli bombardment continues, she said that 16 of her colleagues have now been killed since the siege of Gaza began, following the attacks by Hamas militants in southern Israel of 7 October.
She also spoke about the situation inside UNRWA shelters, and how the agency is trying to a give “little bit of privacy and a little bit of dignity” to people in desperate need.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
UN News: UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that there is a need to clarify the conditions and limit the restrictions for aid to start coming into Gaza. What is stopping the trucks from rolling in?
Ms. Alrifai: We do not quite know what is stopping the trucks but what we know is – exactly like the UN Secretary-General, other principles of the UN including UNRWA Commissioner General and the Emergency Relief Coordinator – everyone is calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and unimpeded, continuous and safe humanitarian access for humanitarian convoys.
What we are witnessing is intense negotiations about the number of tracks, the day of the opening.
What is needed is a continuous flow of aid. This is not about a one off sending 20 trucks and then nothing. This is really a call for a continuous and safe humanitarian access with security conditions that allow, my colleagues in Gaza to do what they need to do, which is check in on the internally displaced people (IDPs), and run the health centers and distribute water and food.
UN News: Let us say the trucks start rolling in and now you have some aid, at least, to be able to distribute to people. How are you going to do that without any humanitarian pauses and are you going be able to reach all parts of Gaza?
Ms. Alrifai: We cannot work without security guarantees and this is why we have been calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. We need to be able to send our trucks and send our people and know that they are not going to get killed or shot or taken in between.
We will be able to work because most of my UNRWA colleagues are themselves Gazans. I have 13,000 colleagues who are themselves from Gaza. Most of them are taking refuge in UNRWA shelters and living with the rest of the displaced people.
My colleagues, sadly, have a lot of experience in responding to humanitarian needs during conflicts, so they will be able to work. We will need to get organized given the large scale of destruction but we are also calling on being able to work across Gaza and not just in the south. We have to go to people where they are.
UN News: You mentioned your 13,000 colleagues in Gaza, a majority of them obviously Gazans themselves. What are they telling you about their own conditions and their families?
Ms. Alrifai: They are telling us what we are hearing from other civilians: everybody is shocked at the intensity of this conflict. Most of my colleagues are displaced in UNRWA schools themselves.
The conditions are very, very dire for everyone, including my colleagues ... UNRWA has already lost 16 of its staff in the last 12 days
These UNRWA schools are very, very overcrowded. There is no privacy, there is one toilet for several thousand people, there is no access to basic necessities and commodities, everyone is living on one litre of drinking water or less per day.
The conditions are very, very dire for everyone, including my colleagues and I want to remind that UNRWA has already lost 16 of its staff in the last 12 days – I have lost 16 colleagues from UNRWA.
UN News: This is very sad news that 16 staff members tragically lost their lives. With their current conditions, and the 13,000 people on the ground – do you have even the logistical capacity to continue delivering aid?
Ms. Alrifai: Once the trucks start coming in, we are going to have to assess the capacity in our warehouses and how many people are needed to do what. Right now we are in planning mode until we see what is going to go in.
As a reminder, we do have the largest infrastructure in Gaza as UNRWA between our schools, health centers, warehouses and food distribution centers. In terms of our stretch across the strip – we are stretched – but can we can handle.
It is going to need scaling up precisely because most of my colleagues are not live in normal conditions themselves – they are displaced and they are in shelters.
UN News: On displacement and shelters, yesterday (Thursday) we received news that an UNRWA school was hit or there was a strike outside the school. Can you tell us a little bit about the conditions in those facilities another UNRWA facilities?
Ms. Alrifai: In fact, 33 of our premises and installations have been damaged so far by strikes by the Israeli Defense Forces. We have sustained a lot of damage on top of the human losses.
The conditions inside the shelters are overcrowding, a lot of fear and despair, and a state of shock that my colleagues report by people who thought they were seeking safety and security in a UN building under a blue flag.
The fact that one of our schools, the one you mentioned, sustained damage while there were people inside it was very, very shocking to the people themselves.
Surprisingly, they left the shelter and came back to it. Because there is a perception that if you are in a UN building, then you are protected or at least you are supposed to be more protected than if you are somewhere else in Gaza. But in reality nowhere today in Gaza is safe.
We are just trying to give people who are already in our shelters ... a little bit of dignity
UN News: There are reports indicating that UNRWA is setting up tents in southern Gaza. What can you tell us about that?
Ms. Alrifai: I saw the pictures on social media. The pictures are from the courtyard for one of our shelters.
We have a training center – a vocational training center – which in usual times receives young people who are studying IT, mechanics or something else.
We are using this building as a shelter, and this building has a huge courtyard. People have been sleeping in the open in the courtyard. These tents are tents from our own warehouses, inside our own shelter.
We are not setting up a new camp or anything. We are just trying to give people who are already in our shelter, in the Khan Younis training center, a little bit of privacy and a little bit of dignity.