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The Israeli army attacked a U.N. aid convoy along a route it designated safe

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The war between Israel and Hamas is continuing into the new year, and aid agencies are regularly facing gunfire while trying to deliver humanitarian assistance to Gaza. That's as famine and disease are threatening hundreds of thousands of people there. Just on Friday, the U.N. agency operating in Gaza said an Israeli tank fired on one of its aid convoys. Tom White is the agency's director.

TOM WHITE: We were moving a convoy out of northern Gaza, and the Israeli army requested that we reroute. And on that route, our convoy encountered some tanks. And those tanks looked like they fired warning shots. They got closer, and then they hit the vehicle. So, you know, it highlights the risks of aid workers in Gaza but also, you know, highlights the need to ensure that the Israeli army respect the role of the United Nations in delivering aid. We need to be able to do that. And essentially, aid workers should never be a target.

SCHMITZ: And what do you think happened there? Was this just a disconnect between different officers within the Israeli Defense Forces or...

WHITE: Look. At this stage, we're following up with the Israeli army. And they're undertaking investigation, and we're awaiting the findings of that investigation. In the meantime, we continue to work with them to try and find mechanisms so that we can safely move our teams through areas where their soldiers are operating.

SCHMITZ: Now, fortunately, in this case, your staff were not injured. But your agency has reported that more than 140 colleagues have died so far in this conflict. Is that mainly from Israeli attacks, or are we looking at also attacks from Hamas or other Palestinian groups?

WHITE: Overwhelmingly, they were in attacks that have come from the Israeli army. You know, a large number of them were killed in these airstrikes, which drop whole buildings on all of the families that are living in these buildings. One of the other incidents that occurred about a week and a half ago was a young man driving a U.N.-marked tractor to a dump site - he was removing solid waste from one of the communities - was fired upon. The round destroyed the engine block of the tractor. It was then followed up by small arms fire. He had extensive damage to his femur.

SCHMITZ: Wow.

WHITE: And he was the young man in that family who was supporting all of his broader family. And, you know, he was in a hospital where they're just conducting war surgery after war surgery. And, you know, he was in a lot of pain simply because there wasn't enough pain medication.

SCHMITZ: And, of course, this mission of your staff is to try and get aid into Gaza. What has been the impact of these incidents on that mission?

WHITE: It's always difficult getting into areas that are under fire. And obviously we've got some mechanisms that we continue to work with the Israeli army to ensure access. But the reality is that fear stalks our staff and, in fact, the whole community here because of the airstrikes that are hitting everywhere in Gaza. So this afternoon, you know, I was speaking to some of our staff who are supporting people in a U.N. shelter. In fact, it's a technical college where there are about 30,000 people now living. And there was incoming fire to that college last night. And, you know, this has played out time and time again, you know, where there are now hundreds of people who've been sheltering under a U.N. flag who've lost their lives.

SCHMITZ: Now, about 10 days ago, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding the safe, immediate and unhindered delivery of aid to Gaza. In your mind, has that resolution helped?

WHITE: Look. Only time will tell on that. There are two major challenges. One is that we need to get more aid into Gaza. And getting aid into Gaza is a very difficult process, requires numerous checks. It's a very complicated logistic exercise. And then once it's in Gaza, it's, you know, very challenging. There's regular outages of the communication network, which makes it very difficult to talk with truck drivers and convoy leaders. But there's also a growing desperation in the population.

SCHMITZ: Tom, of all the shortages that people in Gaza are suffering from - lack of food, water, you know, basic sanitation - what are you most concerned about?

WHITE: There are a couple of things. One is food. We have 40% of the population at risk of famine. We've got hundreds of thousands of people who are living in the open without basic shelter. There's also a major challenge in terms of sanitation. In the shelters we operate, they are carrying two to three times as many people as we anticipated, in some shelters significantly more than that. I was in a shelter the other day. The sewage system just cannot cope. So there was urine and feces flowing out of the bathroom into the schoolyard. And because of the overcrowding, you have people building shelters in the schoolyard. So people are living amongst sewage. Now, you know, that's a risk, you know, for basic things like watery diarrhea. Now, in a situation where people then don't have access to adequate drinking water, for children, that can be a killer. So there is this - you know, this issue of disease as well.

SCHMITZ: That's Tom White, director of UNRWA affairs in Gaza. Tom, thanks for joining us.

WHITE: Thank you very much.

SCHMITZ: For more coverage of the Israel-Hamas War, go to our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.