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. [Continue reading…]