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Conditions are deteriorating for displaced Palestinians forced to flee to Rafah

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Because of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, more than a million Palestinians are living in makeshift tent cities in Gaza's south, and most of them depend, in one way or another, on humanitarian aid and services provided by a single U.N. agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which is known as UNRWA. And that agency's operations are now in jeopardy. The U.S. and at least eight other countries cut millions of dollars in funding for the organization, after Israel accused 12 UNRWA employees of helping to carry out the October 7 attacks. Israel also claims that dozens of other UNRWA workers were Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives. We wanted to know how this is affecting the people who depend on UNRWA, so I'm joined by Scott Anderson. He is deputy director of UNRWA affairs in Gaza, and he is with us now from Rafah. Good morning.

SCOTT ANDERSON: Good morning, Michel. Thank you for letting me join you this morning.

MARTIN: Thank you for joining us. So you are speaking to us from Rafah, which has become a sprawling tent city in southern Gaza, as we said, and as I think many people know, hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians are sheltering there right now. Could you just describe what the conditions are like?

ANDERSON: The conditions are very dire for most people. Before the conflict started or before October 7 in Rafah, there were about 280,000 people. And as you said, now there's well over a million people living in a in a very small area. And it's roughly, you know, four or five times the population. So, you know, most days people are just trying to meet their basic necessities, find food, find a toilet, find water, try to stay warm 'cause it is winter here in Gaza. So it's a very difficult situation for most people.

MARTIN: Is there any, say, health infrastructure at this point? Like, if people are injured - and we understand that, you know, many people continue to be injured - is there any apparatus to treat them?

ANDERSON: It's very limited at the moment, unfortunately. So there are three hospitals that are still somewhat functioning south of Wadi Gaza. That's Al-Aqsa, which is in the middle area, European Hospital and Nasser Hospital. And unfortunately, this morning we heard news that there is a large conflict happening in and around Nasser Hospital, which puts the patients that are currently there in jeopardy, but also removes that as an option for people to receive treatment. And even with those three hospitals, the capacity that they're operating in is quite limited. There is some primary health care available, mostly provided by UNRWA and the health centers that we're still operating, which is unfortunately six out of the normal 22. But, yes, every system that you could think of has been strained to the limits, be they the health system, you know, the food system, sewage, water. It's taking care of a large number of people that it was never meant to serve.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I ask about this is that Israel has said that it plans to launch an offensive in Rafah, which could be imminent. How are you preparing for that?

ANDERSON: Well, I don't think there's really any way to prepare for that. You know, there would need to be an evacuation plan of some sort for all the people that are here, so the innocent civilians could be removed to somewhere more safer than it would be during an operation. But, you know, I'm standing in my office. I look out the window. All you see are tents and people. So I don't know how you could conduct an operation that would not disproportionately impact innocent civilians in such a small, constrained area.

Our other concern is that in the southern part of Gaza, near Rafah, the only crossing for humanitarian aid to enter, which is Kerem Shalom, is all the way in the south. How would an operation in Rafah impact our ability to continue to bring in humanitarian aid? And as I think you mentioned before, the bulk of the population, if not all, is dependent on the humanitarian community, including UNRWA, to receive food and water to meet their daily basic necessities.

MARTIN: Now, you know, I have to ask you about the underlying, you know, allegation here, which is behind what we are told is a potential stop in funding from several countries, that Israel claims that a dozen UNRWA members were actually involved in the October 7 attack, you know, not to mention that they claim that nearly 100 others or so are Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives. How does your agency respond to those allegations?

ANDERSON: Well, first of all, we take them very seriously, and I hope that it is untrue. But the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight has launched an investigation, and the investigators are active. I was interviewed previously last week with them. Obviously, I can't, you know, convey any of the details, and we're just going to have to wait for the outcome of that investigation. But on a larger scale, you know, if any of these 12 people were involved, it's a betrayal of the organization and of the values that we stand for. You know, those - the events that happened on October 7 were horrific and have been condemned, and I condemn them again in terms of what happened to the innocent civilians in Israel. But unfortunately, now we have to wait for the investigation to run its course.

But as I said, it is a betrayal. And unfortunately, throughout history we've seen people who put their own individual needs above organizations, and that's even happened in the U.S. with people like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who betrayed their country for - you know, for individual gain. But that doesn't necessarily mean the organization itself is bad, but it does mean that some of the people that are part of the organization are bad and, as I said, have betrayed what we stand for.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, these accusations have resulted in a funding stop - at least a threatened funding stop - from several countries. Have you experienced the consequences of that yet? I mean, have you - do you feel that where you are?

ANDERSON: I mean, our staff certainly feel it, yes. You know, when this all became news to everyone and they saw that I think it's 16 countries now have suspended future funding to UNRWA and to Gaza in particular, you know, the staff understand what that means in terms of our ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis that's ongoing, and there is a lot of people that are very nervous about what this means for the future of Gaza, for the future of UNRWA and, you know, the future of any self-determination for the Palestinian people.

MARTIN: But, I mean, has it already taken effect, though?

ANDERSON: So it was announced that future funding would be suspended. So we will pay salaries in February for all our operations, which are in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, West Bank and Gaza, but without a change in funding and how we receive funding in March, we will not be able to pay salaries. So all the schools that are operated in the other fields, 'cause we're not doing education now, would stop. Visits to the health centers would stop, and the impact would be quite significant, as I said, in countries like Jordan and Lebanon and Syria.

MARTIN: And so before we let you go, just so I understand, you're saying if this funding stop continues, you're saying that operations in Gaza will essentially cease at the end of March. Is that what I'm understanding you to say?

ANDERSON: UNRWA operations, yes. We will run into a wall at the end of March, early April. I mean, it, you know, just - it depends a little bit on how much things cost and when we pay and all that. But yes, for our staff and everybody that's leading our part of the response, end of March, early April, we will see a significant change in our ability to implement our operations.

MARTIN: Scott Anderson is the deputy director of UNRWA affairs in Gaza. Mr. Anderson, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

ANDERSON: Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it.

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