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There is a huge humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza


International observers are warning that conditions in Gaza are so dire that an outbreak of infectious disease is almost inevitable. Israel cut off food, fuel and water as it expanded its airstrikes and now its ground operation, which it says are aimed at uprooting Hamas. The U.N. says the trickle of aid that has come through the border with Egypt is just a drop in the ocean compared to the need. Plus, fuel isn't being allowed in amid concern from the Israelis that Hamas could weaponize it. Abood Okal is an American who was visiting Gaza with his family when war broke out. He talked about what it was like to spend 27 days trying to get out.

ABOOD OKAL: On many of those days, we did not have drinking water. We would have to go look out for it for hours, not even caring about what we would drink. I mean, ultimately, we would get whatever. We would get food poisoning, or et cetera, if we drank non-drinking water.

FADEL: Bob Kitchen is the vice president for emergencies at the International Rescue Committee, and he joins us now on Skype to discuss the humanitarian crisis. Good morning.

BOB KITCHEN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So the World Health Organization says it's already seeing more cases of things like chicken pox, upper respiratory infections. What is your organization seeing that prompted your warning about the spread of disease?

KITCHEN: So let's be clear, the primary threat to life right now is tanks and airstrikes.


KITCHEN: But we're now facing a real threat from the consequences of the conflict. One-point-five million people have been forced to flee their homes, and they're now sheltering in schools and other public buildings. Significant overcrowding combined with a 92% reduction in water drives real risk of contagious diseases. It's basically a case of when, rather than if, we'll see cholera and other life-threatening diseases. We're hearing about terrible situations from staff working with organizations we support on the ground. In one camp in Khan Yunis, 50,000 people are sheltering together, and they only have access to four toilets. We'll start seeing...

FADEL: Fifty thousand people to four toilets?

KITCHEN: Yeah. We'll start seeing people fall ill really soon. And without clinics and medicines, even curable sicknesses represent an imminent threat to life for children and other vulnerable people.

FADEL: Well, let's talk about the hospital situation. I mean, we've been talking to doctors, people in Gaza who are describing hospitals without anesthesia, hospitals that are no longer functioning, out of fuel, damaged by attacks. And that's just people talking about the thousands and thousands of wounded that they're treating. But if you do get sick, what happens?

KITCHEN: You face the risk of loss of life. The situation is really catastrophic. More than a hundred hospitals have been attacked. We're receiving word this morning of a new attack on the al-Shifa hospital. It's continual. So hospitals are overwhelmed. As you say, they don't have anesthetic, so people are being operated without anesthesia, which is just terrifying. They're discharging people as rapidly as they can because the inflow is so large of people coming in with new trauma. So people who have waterborne diseases are a long way down the list of priorities right now, but that will have a toll on civilian lives as well soon.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, we heard from our own correspondent about the reports of that attack on a maternity ward at al-Shifa hospital. We're still reporting that out. We haven't heard back from the Israeli military either yet. I mean, these humanitarian pauses, are they a way to address any of these issues, getting aid in to where it needs to be, preventing the outbreak of diseases?

KITCHEN: It's huge. It's critical right now. We care less about the terminology of pauses or humanitarian cease-fires. What we care about is that we have sufficient duration to deliver humanitarian aid. And with so much damage and humanitarian suffering, that really does take time. We need to change the current trickle of aid to a robust flow of aid. The number of trucks that are able to get in from Egypt to Rafah is tiny compared to the basic essentials for keeping 2 million people alive, so we need a massive scale-up of aid. We also - you said earlier about the consequence of fuel. We have to get fuel in if we're going to be able to distribute the aid once it's into Gaza and get the lights back on in hospitals.

You can't deliver aid without aid workers, so we need safety for aid workers. We're seeing reports of more than 90 U.N. workers killed, and many more NGO staff have lost their lives. Only four out of the previous 70 NGOs in Gaza are still able to work. If we can't work, we can't save lives, so it has to be safe for us. And then we also need it to be safe for civilians to receive aid. They have to be able to come together to collect the aid. The stuff we have to give out, they have to come and get it. People need to be able to go to clinics and hospitals to receive treatment. And then finally, we have to have safe and accessible routes to evacuate the most sick, and then they have to be able to return. So that is a huge task. The current four hours on the table is woefully inadequate.

FADEL: Bob Kitchen is vice president for emergencies at the International Rescue Committee. Thank you for your time.

KITCHEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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