Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), was two days back from the city of Rafah in southern Gaza when we spoke earlier today (15 December).
He compared this latest trip with a previous visit he made on the eve of the November truce between Israel and Hamas. Lazzarini had been shocked by the squalid conditions of the shelters at the UNRWA refugee camp, where people were queuing for hours to go to the bathroom and couldn’t change clothes for more than a month. Children slept on concrete floors with no blankets.
The situation is much worse now. “Rafah was crowded with desperate people,” he said. “I could not recognise the neighbourhood. The shelter is surrounded by tens of thousands of people who have just fled Khan Yunis [another city in southern Gaza]; a plastic city is being erected. When I arrived I saw a crowd jump on a truck of humanitarian aid and the people started eating on the spot. It has become very difficult to supply the people in the shelters because those shelters are surrounded by crowds of desperate people.”
“Rafah used to be a place where 200,000 people lived. Now there is more than one million.” Lazzarini, who has been commissioner-general since 2020, insisted that humanitarian assistance is not enough – it needs to be complemented by the higher quantity of goods that commercial flows would deliver. For that, Israel needs to open the crossing at Kerem Shalom on the Egyptian border, the only place with the capacity to process thousands of trucks a day, and the passage that was used before Hamas’s attack on 7 October. (A statement published by the US national security adviser Jake Sullivan this afternoon announced the crossing will be opened for “direct delivery”, but according to an Israeli official the decision applies to aid from Egypt only and not the United Nation.) All trucks going into the Strip are inspected by Israeli authorities at the village of Nitzana, near the Egyptian border, before returning. However, only around 100 are making the trip each day. I asked him what follows from here.
Philippe Lazzarini: I have warned more than once that this situation on the ground might also in the future lead to a desperate attempt from the [Palestinian] people to say, “Well I don’t see my life anymore in Gaza, I need to cross the border into Egypt.” The more tension between the limited goods entering Gaza and the immensity of the need [remains], the more this will accelerate the crumbling of civil order. The aid and flowing of commodities should be adequate, should be at scale. The Rafah crossing was not planned to be a major crossing of goods.
Bruno Maçães: You said Palestinians could become so desperate they may try to cross into Egypt. Are we already seeing signs of that?
PL: What I am saying here is that a reality on the ground has been created which in fact will push more and more Palestinians out of Gaza. A few examples. First of all, the middle class in this society may want to give their children a future. We have already seen that people are not allowed to return to the north and are constantly pushed further south. You may have 1.5 million people in Rafah depending on how things evolve in Khan Yunis. They are just at the border, desperate. The temptation to flee this hell on Earth is very strong. A tipping point might be reached and people will try their chances. It may not be a deliberate policy, but you have a reality on the ground being created.
BM: There are reports on social media of children starting to die from hunger. Is that something you saw or heard in your visit?
PL: I am not aware of that yet, but the [UN’s] World Food Programme is extremely worried that we are now going into starvation. What I can tell you is I saw first hand that people are hungry. This is something completely new in Gaza. We never saw it in previous conflicts. People are really talking about hunger. I would not be surprised if people indeed start dying of hunger, or a combination of hunger, disease, weak immunity.
BM: What are the risks of epidemic, now also with the rain and cold?
PL: We are seeing a skyrocketing increase in diarrhoea. Hepatitis is starting to emerge. A lot of skin disease also, due to the appalling hygiene conditions, and many people have not been able to change their clothes for weeks.
Juliette Touma, the UNRWA’s communications director: All the pharmacies were closed when we drove through.
PL: The more we wait the more people will die, not just because of the military bombardment but also because of the impact of the siege. That is a race against the clock.
[See also: The triple betrayal of Israeli women]