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Israel's offensive in Gaza challenges humanitarian efforts and delivery of aid

Palestinians fleeing the Israeli ground offensive arrive in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP)
Palestinians fleeing the Israeli ground offensive arrive in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP)

As Israel expands its offensive in Gaza and pushes Palestinians deeper south, humanitarian groups are struggling to deliver the necessary aid to those impacted by the fighting.

United Nations Humanitarian Chief Martin Griffiths says the UN can’t guarantee safety for people anywhere in the region.

“The international humanitarian community has a single, clear message now: This has to stop. This has to stop immediately,” Griffiths says. “That ceasefire that we’ve all been talking about has to start immediately.”

5 questions with UN Humanitarian Chief Martin Griffiths

What do the evacuations and conditions in Gaza look like?

“There’s nothing good to be said today about what’s happening in Gaza. And I speak as the representative of the international humanitarian community, the world’s humanitarian agencies.

“What my community is telling me is very simple: There is nowhere safe for the people to move to in southern Gaza. The promises that we heard of possibly a less offensive military operation in the South than in the North have not come through. There is no place of safety for people to shelter. The hospitals, as we have seen, are places of conflict.”

What’s the state of humanitarian efforts in Gaza?

“There’s almost nothing we’re doing anymore in southern Gaza. Some trucks get across the Rafah crossing, but even unloading them means that people have to move from where they are living a little bit, slightly more safely, a little bit further north in Gaza. They can’t get to Rafah to unload them. So humanitarian aid is coming to a standstill.

“The support for water systems is running out. You’ve seen all the pictures in the hospitals — it’s all triage and trying desperately to move the wounded. It’s not a humanitarian operation anymore. It’s a situation where humanitarian agencies are reacting at best to what is in front of them.

“And the worst aspect of this. .. is we don’t know where this is going to end. There are, what is it, 2 million people also down in southern Gaza. Where are they supposed to go? They can’t find safety. There is no place that the UN can guarantee safety despite major efforts of deconfliction. Where will they go? Where will they move? Well, we will find out.”

What are the concerns about Palestinians dying from health risks?

“What we’re hearing from our colleagues in the World Health Organization and Medicins Sans Frontieres, Palestine Red Crescent and others, is that, in fact, the death toll on the civilian population of Gaza is now increasing from health as much as from conflict.

“It’s not only the bombings that are killing children anymore — it’s cholera. It’s waterborne diseases. It’s lack of health care. The utter destruction of the health system of Gaza, which we have seen now clearly for some days or even a few weeks, has the logical impact on the poor and the poorest people of Gaza, which is to kill them by disease if they don’t get killed by bombs.”

What was the impact of the temporary pause in fighting?

“What was very interesting about that pause was it showed what could happen. Because what did happen in the pause was aid did reach people. Stocks were replenished. People were able to move to places of greater safety. The parties did stop for that shortest time, but it showed us an alternative to what we’re seeing today.”

What makes Tuesday a particularly bad day?

“I think what makes [Dec. 5] a particularly bad day is that the humanitarian agencies have concluded — and you will hear it vociferously from UNWRA and others — that the situation in southern Gaza is now unequivocally the same kind of situation that the northern Gazans faced. And that the [U.S. Secretary of State Antony] Blinken visit, with its hoped-for diplomacy, didn’t produce results. Now we know today that diplomacy hasn’t worked and we see the increase in the conflict itself in the South.

“That’s what makes this, I think, a point of irreversible tragedy. We’ve all had hopes in these past days or weeks about let’s have a pause or a ceasefire for a while, or my 10-point plan. We could put up places of safety with U.N. flags and honor institutions. We now see pretty clearly in southern Gaza this is so last week, and this is not going to work. And the unanswered question is one that you did ask, in fact, which is where do they go? What happens next? And I don’t have an answer to that, but it’s the question which every family in northern Gaza is asking itself: ‘Okay, if this is not safe, where do we go to find safety?’ And it’s not going to be in Gaza. Where does that leave us?”

Click here for more coverage and different points of view.

Hafsa Quraishi produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Quraishi also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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