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UNWRA aid workers were among the over 2,000 killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Israeli Defense Forces have warned over a million Palestinians to evacuate to Southern Gaza, possibly to prepare for a larger ground war. The weeklong conflict has been deadly. A shocking Hamas attack killed at least 1,300 Israelis. Thousands more were injured, and Israeli airstrikes and tank fire have killed over 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza and injured nearly 10,000. Gazan officials say roughly 60% of those killed are women and children. Among those dead in Gaza are at least 12 aid workers with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA. We are joined now by Hani Almadhoun. He is director of Philanthropy for UNRWA and based right outside of Washington, D.C. Mr. Almadhoun, thanks so much for being with us.

HANI ALMADHOUN: Sure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about the evacuation warning. Israel says it's to minimize civilian casualties. The World Health Organization says that this is going to be a death sentence for a number of people in Gaza. It's just not possible to undertake that mass evacuation without casualties. What does it seem like to you?

ALMADHOUN: Yes. You have this right. It's been a very difficult time for the Palestinians in Gaza. And mind you, I work for UNRWA USA. It's the U.S. affiliate of the U.N. agency that's actually providing the services. So 13 of our colleagues - at least 13 of our colleagues, including a doctor, among the victims of the folks that just lost their lives in this carnage. And I'm sad to say that I have family in Gaza, too. So they're...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALMADHOUN: ...Right now hiding under staircases. So this is a very emotional time as we try to rally support for the cause and get people food. As you know, it hasn't been really easy to bring in anything inside Gaza, and UNRWA tells us they have food for about 10 more days in Gaza. And, you know, we'll see how that looks. My mom, this morning, called me. They can't find bread in Gaza. They're giving the little kids dates. And I understand that, you know, we had some more clarity about collective punishment and about getting aid and humanitarian relief in Ukraine and Russia conflict. I'm not feeling this way right now in this conflict, even from the administration, where hasn't validated that there are Palestinian civilians and it has not said or supported, you know, we're not feeling that the U.N. flag has been respected anymore. Our colleagues are being bombed, some are being killed and those are people who are trying to help others. Imagine if you have a U.N. agency and a U.N. vest and you don't feel safe. How can you think of the civilians who are caught in Gaza?

SIMON: Let me follow up with a few things. Electricity and water have been cut off. How were you able to stay in touch?

ALMADHOUN: We haven't, really. Yesterday was the first day I was able to see my mom and I could call. There is little electricity. Some people still use solar. There is a few power banks and solar panels. There is maybe, like, an hour of electricity here or there. If somebody has stored some fuel, then they have electricity for an hour. Most people, if not all people in Gaza now, don't have electricity. I talked to my in-laws who actually evacuated to the supposedly safe zone and they are not feeling very safe. My mom is in the Northern Gaza where they're supposed to evacuate. She doesn't feel safe enough to go to where the Israelis instructed them to go. And as you remember, those are traumatizing moments for the Palestinians who lived through the '48 and '67, and they know that once they leave, they may not be able to go back to where their homes are.

SIMON: Well, help us understand what that trek would be when you say - and we hope and pray your mother's all right - that your mother is afraid to go. What is so menacing? What does anyone trying to make that journey confront?

ALMADHOUN: So basically there is three - two main routes and one unofficial one to get out of wherever you need to. There is the beach route, which is being bombed right now as we speak from the sea. So that's very dangerous. There is the eastern side, and that - there is a lot more of - presence because of - the Israeli military is literally, like, five minutes away. So it's a very chaotic scene and there are some local authorities there, and it's very - it's unconfirmed if you can go, you can cross to where you need to. I have heard of people who are just taking zigzag roads or farmland to try to get to safety. But it's not an ideal situation for a family, say, of 20 people, you know, you - first, you don't have fuel for your car, how are you going to get there? And then two, any car large enough, it may be a target, as we've seen with a bus that was bombed out yesterday. At least 30 peoples lost their lives.

So people don't feel safe, you know, something like a humanitarian break or a ceasefire for people to move if they need to. But there is a lot of emotions where people say not - I would not leave my house because of the trauma. And some people who, you know, everybody doesn't want to be attacked. Let's just be honest about this. And I'm not seeing the parade we've had before for Ukraine or, you know, and it's tragedies that happened in Israel, too. But I feel like, you know, a lot of people feel abandoned by many people. And for them to go to safety, they feel they don't even know if they're going to make it. And the question is, do you split the family or do you stay together? Do you die together, or do you have - give somebody a chance to live? A lot of those difficult conversations and what UNRWA was asking for.

Yeah. If - what UNRWA was asking for right now is to just make sure that we have some relief inside Gaza, and we make sure that civilians are protected and we do continue the conversations with the administration about relief and work with UNRWA. We've had a healthy relationship with the administration, but we want to do more of this to support the people in Gaza right now.

SIMON: Hani Almadhoun is director of philanthropy at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Our best wishes to your family and staff members. Thank you for speaking with us.

ALMADHOUN: Thank you. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "BLACKBOX LIFE RECORDER 21F") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.