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“Unimaginably Catastrophic”: As Gaza’s Displaced Top 100,000, Israel Reportedly Shells U.N. School

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The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees says the number of people seeking refuge at its sites in Gaza has soared to more than 100,000. According to unconfirmed reports, one of the shelters, a girls’ school in central Gaza, was hit Monday by an Israeli shell. We speak to Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). “The situation for refugees on the ground in Gaza right now is unimaginably catastrophic,” Gunness says.

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

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

AARON MATÉ: While the two-week-old Israeli offensive on Gaza has killed more than 600 Palestinians and 27 Israeli soldiers, we turn now to look at the residents of Gaza who have been displaced. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said Monday the number of people seeking refuge at its sites in Gaza has soared to more than 100,000. This is Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: Violence must stop. It must stop now. All sides must provide the necessary space to aid the victims, assist the wounded and extend the relief to trapped civilians. These immediate steps should open the door to a more permanent ceasefire. Gaza is an open wound, and band-aid won’t help. There must be a plan after the aftermath that allows Gaza to breathe and heal. Recovery and reconstruction is more needed than ever.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. For more, we go back to Jerusalem, where we’re joined by Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The agency is known as UNRWA.

Chris, welcome back to Democracy Now!

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the situation for refugees on the ground in Gaza right now?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: The situation for refugees on the ground in Gaza right now is unimaginably catastrophic. Since that figure that you just gave out, we put out, it’s now gone up by 2,000. That’s just in the last hour or so, which I think is a testimony to the intensity of the Israeli ground offensive, which has led to a crisis of human displacement. UNRWA is accommodating the displaced in nearly 70 shelters. Our top priority is, of course, food, water, medicine, hygiene, sanitation.

But first and foremost, of course, in our concerns is the question of security, because don’t forget that in 2008, 2009, we took direct hits from the Israeli army with white phosphorus in buildings which were housing hundreds of refugees in exactly the same sorts of circumstances. On one occasion, our main compound in Gaza was directly hit with white phosphorus, and the warehouse burned down. The Secretary-General condemned it. And interestingly, that took place just as he arrived in the region. He also—the Israeli defense minister apologized, and Israel paid millions in compensation. But to be honest, that is not good enough. All parties must abide by their obligations under international law. They must respect the sanctity of civilian life and the inviolability of U.N. premises.

And very quickly on that subject, just a few days ago, we strongly condemned the groups or group who put in one of our schools a cache of 20 rockets. So, all sides need to respect the obligations under international law for the protection of civilians and respect the inviolability of United Nations premises.

AARON MATÉ: You mentioned the targeting of your facilities in 2008 and 2009. Is any of that happening today? Is the Israeli military targeting your schools and your shelters?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, we have no evidence of that, as I speak. An initial report has come through of one of our schools in central Gaza, where internally displaced people have taken refuge, has been hit. We have sent an investigation team out to the site. It is an extremely worrying and concerning development. And we pray that our facilities, with civilians in them, are not being hit. As I say, it’s an initial report. We’re investigating, and we hope to have more soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain further what it is that you understand happened, Christopher Gunness.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, it’s impossible to say more at this stage. We know that one of our schools, a girls’ school in central Gaza, which had been turned into one of the shelters in which we are housing more than 100,000 people, took a direct hit. I understand there may have been an injury. But it’s very early days. We’re investigating, but it seems to be an extremely worrying development.

AARON MATÉ: Chris Gunness, can you describe these facilities where so many people are taking refuge? What are the conditions like there?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Very good question, because in ordinary times, inasmuch as anything is ever ordinary in Gaza, these are schools. And they are schools which we use to educate a thousand pupils at a time. So, there are classrooms, with a schoolyard, like any school, I guess, anywhere in America or anywhere in the world. Suddenly they’ve been transformed into reception centers for thousands of people, and thousands of people who are staying there 24/7. So you can imagine the raft of problems that that brings with it. Sanitation is a huge problem. As we speak, a massive airlift is underway from Dubai. A cargo plane carrying 150 metric tons of aid has arrived in the Jordanian capital, Amman. That’s been put—some of it’s been put on trucks, and a 15-truck convoy is now at the Israeli border with Jordan and will come in, we hope, perhaps as early as tomorrow to Gaza, carrying, for example [no audio]—

AMY GOODMAN: Chris, it—

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: —blankets, hygiene kits. These are desperately needed items, because as we speak, displaced people, the hungry, the needy, the sick, the elderly, babies, women, the dying are streaming into our facilities. And we desperately need money, principally, but also in-kind items such as these coming from Dubai. Don’t forget, UNRWA has had, in the last few hours, to increase its flash appeal. We had launched a flash appeal for $60 million, and we’ve had to nearly double that—it’s now $115 million—because we’re simply overwhelmed by the numbers that are pouring into our facilities in Gaza right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Gunness, I want to thank you for being with, speaking to us from Jerusalem. Chris Gunness is the spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA.

And that does it for our broadcast. You can get a copy of today’s show by going to democracynow.org. Democracy Now! is hiring. We have openings for administrative director, as well as fall internships. Visit democracynow.org/jobs for more information.

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