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Gaza Death Toll Tops 13,000 as Israel Strikes UN Schools Housing Refugees

At least 82 Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes on Jabaliya refugee camp over the weekend.

Over the weekend, at least 82 Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes on Jabaliya refugee camp, including multiple United Nations schools sheltering Palestinians. At least 85 incidents of Israeli bombing have impacted 67 facilities run by the United Nations relief agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in the last two months. We speak with Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for UNRWA, about the organization sheltering close to a million Palestinians from Israel’s assault, which has killed 104 of her colleagues since the beginning of the war — the highest number of United Nations aid workers killed in a conflict in the history of the United Nations. Alrifai says her agency is only getting half of the fuel they need to serve people in Gaza, being forced to choose between clean water, food and transport. “If UNRWA ceases to exist tomorrow, then there is a huge layer of stabilizing and stability that UNRWA usually offers in a very, very volatile area that also collapses.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Health officials in Gaza say the overall death toll from Israel’s 45-day bombardment has topped 13,000. More than 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced, with many fearing they’ll never be allowed to return home.

In Gaza City, Israeli tanks have surrounded the Indonesian Hospital. Palestinian officials say at least 12 people have already been killed in Israeli strikes on the hospital. The government of Indonesia has condemned Israel’s targeting of the hospital, saying it’s a clear violation of international humanitarian laws.

Meanwhile, 31 premature babies were evacuated from Al-Shifa, the largest hospital in Gaza City, which has been seized by the Israeli military. The babies, who are suffering from dehydration, hypothermia and sepsis, have been taken to Rafah. Some have already been moved across the border.

On Saturday, an Israeli airstrike killed at least 50 Palestinian civilians at a U.N.-run school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, though some estimates put the number as high as 200. A second UNRWA school was also hit Saturday. This comes as the World Food Programme is warning residents of Gaza may soon face starvation due to a massive shortage of food.

We begin today’s show with Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees. She’s joining us from Jordan.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tamara. If you can talk about the situation right now in Gaza? We understand U.N. workers were allowed in to help transport these premature babies from northern Gaza to southern Gaza. Some have crossed over into Egypt right now. And then you have the bombing of the UNRWA schools — you work for UNRWA — in the Jabaliya refugee camp.

TAMARA ALRIFAI: I do work for UNRWA. And sadly, the bombing of an UNRWA school in Jabaliya is the 85th incident against an UNRWA building. We have 67 UNRWA buildings. Many of them are actual shelters that have sustained damage because of strikes nearby or direct hits, killing 176 people who were displaced inside the U.N. building, under the U.N. flag, in search for safety. So nowhere is safe in Gaza. This is, in a nutshell, the situation. Especially, as you so rightly mentioned, Amy, 1.7 million Gazans, of a total population of 2.2 million — that’s roughly 77% of the Gazan population — is now displaced outside of their homes, not knowing whether they’re going to go back, especially if they have moved from the north of the Gaza Strip to the south, noting that the north has been completely sealed for the last few weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what these schools did before, and now what’s happening.

TAMARA ALRIFAI: UNRWA has a system of education, schooling, where 300,000 girls and boys in Gaza receive quality education, very much focused on human rights, tolerance, conflict resolution. This is before the war. During this war, so for the last now six weeks, these schools have turned into shelters. People in Gaza, sadly, are used to wars, and they’re used to sheltering in UNRWA schools, because this is where they feel that there’s sanctity, a U.N. and a global understanding that when someone is in the protection of the U.N., that these buildings will not be targeted. Sadly, this is not the case. So, not only are three-quarters of the Gaza population now made forcibly displaced, some of them for the second or third time, but also their access to basic, basic food and humanitarian assistance is very, very restricted, given the low level of supplies that have been coming into the strip despite an agreement to get trucks in.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the children — well, I should say the infants — who were at Al-Shifa? We have all seen the pictures of them not in incubators, but huddled together, I think wrapped in aluminum to try to maintain their heat. Now U.N. workers getting in and bringing them south, and now, just as we’re broadcasting, apparently, some are being taken over the border into Egypt. What did that whole journey involve? How did the U.N. workers also get in?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: So, I think this picture of these premature infants will remain as one of the most compelling ones of this conflict. And I think it’ll come back to remind us that Gazans really hold onto life.

It took a very, very complex and elaborate U.N. operation to be able to go to Al-Shifa Hospital and remove these premature babies. The mission was led by the World Health Organization’s colleagues, actual heroes, with support from several U.N. organizations, including UNRWA.

But these kids, I’m afraid, these babies, might be joining their peers in Gaza, who before the war we had already identified that most children in Gaza suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of having grown up within a choking blockade on the strip, where they cannot leave the strip, and because of having survived so many conflicts at such a young age. I really, really hope that these kids’ parents are alive and that they will be taken care of, but that’s something to remember about the long-term impact on the psychology of children of all these wars.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you a clip. This is Mark Regev, senior adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He recently spoke on MSNBC, where he was interviewed by Mehdi Hasan.

MEHDI HASAN: I have seen lots of children with my own lying eyes being pulled from the rubble. So —

MARK REGEV: Now, because they’re the pictures Hamas wants you to see. Exactly my point, Mehdi.

MEHDI HASAN: And also because they’re dead, Mark. Also —

MARK REGEV: They’re the pictures Hamas wants — no.

MEHDI HASAN: But they’re also people your government has killed. You accept that, right? You’ve killed children? Or do you deny that?

MARK REGEV: No, I do not. I do not. I do not. First of all, you don’t know how those people died, those children.


AMY GOODMAN: That was Mehdi Hasan saying, “Oh wow,” when Mark Regev said he did not accept that children have died in Gaza. Tamara Alrifai, your response?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: There are enough — there is enough footage, and there is enough documenting from credible sources, including the U.N., of children dying. Save the Children already a few weeks ago said that at least 4,000 children died. It is a reality. Every war in Gaza sees scores of children dead. And those who do not die, most of them have long-term impact on their psychological and mental well-being.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can talk about UNRWA, your agency, that serves Palestinians, warning that you’ll have to stop life-saving operations in Gaza unless you receive more fuel.

TAMARA ALRIFAI: A couple of days ago, there was an agreement on letting fuel into the strip, after many weeks, since the beginning of the war, of not allowing fuel in. The Israeli authorities had not allowed fuel in. I want to say a word about the centrality of fuel to humanitarian operations. Trucks that bring the aid from the Rafah crossing, and electricity generators that provide electricity to water pumping and water desalination so that people can have access to clean drinking water, life-saving machines at hospitals, bakeries that run — everything needs fuel.

The agreement of two days ago is an agreement to bring in 120,000 liters of fuel to cover two days. We require that same amount every single day. So, effectively, we’re getting half of what we need for our humanitarian operations, for the bakeries, the hospitals, the trucks and the clean water, which then will force us to have to take very difficult decisions as to what do we — what do we diminish? Do we diminish access to clean drinking water at the risk of skin and gastro diseases, especially in overcrowded shelters? Do we diminish the bread and the bakeries, especially to people, I just heard you say, that World Food Programme is warning of famine? And what do we diminish? Do we diminish bringing the trucks in from the Rafah border? If we do not get the exact amount we need for a minimal humanitarian response, then we’re going to have to function halfway and only provide half of what these people need.

AMY GOODMAN: If the IDF knows the coordinates of UNRWA locations, you know, among them, schools, can you explain how at least 40 UNRWA buildings have been hit?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: Sixty-seven buildings now, that we’re speaking. I cannot explain militarily how decisions are taken, but I can reiterate that UNRWA provides very regularly, every two weeks, the GPS locations of all its installations to both parties, so to the Israeli authorities but also to the de facto Hamas authorities, so that no one can say, “We did not know.” Every one of our schools and installations and warehouses are very clearly marked, and that marking is communicated.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the UNRWA mandate, Tamara?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: The UNRWA mandate is to provide basic services, schools, health services, social protection to Palestine refugees until there is a political solution whereby 5.9 people who are the descendants of the original Palestine refugees who were expelled or fled in 1948 — there’s a solution that takes them into account so that they’re no longer refugees. These Palestine refugees are not citizens of a country, and therefore UNRWA runs services that are like public services — schools and health centers — until there’s a political solution and, hopefully, they no longer have that status in limbo of a refugee.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you respond to Republicans who — Senate Republicans who introduced a bill to block funds for UNRWA, accusing it of teaching antisemitic school curricula and harboring terrorists in its facilities, Tamara?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: I respond by reminding of the extremely thorough reviews we do of all our teaching material. Page by page is reviewed to ensure that nothing we teach in our school, over 700 schools, runs against the U.N. values and principles. But I also respond that if UNRWA ceases to exist tomorrow, then there is a huge layer of stabilizing and stability that UNRWA usually offers in a very, very, very volatile area that also collapses. It is in everyone’s interest that the UNRWA schools, the health centers, the food assistance and the protection continues, because besides its humanitarian and human rights value, it has a stabilizing impact on the region.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to the Israeli military, that says they won’t allow in fuel because Hamas will take it?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: I will say that our trucks take the fuel from the borders into our depots, into our warehouses, and that we use it directly, or we deliver it directly to the bakeries and the hospitals. So there is no intermediary between the fuel and the beneficiaries. We are the only entity responsible for using that fuel.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Tamara, the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly called for a ceasefire. That has not been accomplished at this point. There have been protests around the world demanding a ceasefire. The first Jewish American congressmember, Becca Balint of Vermont, has joined scores of other congressmembers in calling for a ceasefire. But especially around the U.N., at this point, what can it do?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: It can continue calling for a ceasefire. I want to notice that several countries have called for a ceasefire, including France, and that without a ceasefire, it’s going to be very difficult to come back from the brink or to deescalate. So, the U.N., on the political side, must — different U.N. member states must continue to push for a ceasefire. And on the humanitarian side, we must continue to advocate for more funding and for more access to different parts of the Gaza Strip, because right now the access of aid agencies is almost entirely restricted to the south. The north is completely sealed. But we have to be able to reach people where they are, and for that, we need a ceasefire.

AMY GOODMAN: We thank you so much for being with us, Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees. We’re going to break now. When we come back, we’ll talk more about what’s happening in Gaza. Stay with us.

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