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With aid at a trickle, experts say half a million people in Gaza face starvation

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Nearly nine months into the war in Gaza, the world's leading experts on famine say the worst-case scenario for civilians has so far been avoided. There's no famine in the north. But these experts also say there is currently a high risk of famine all across the Gaza Strip. Joining us to discuss why more food isn't getting to people in Gaza, we have NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy. Hey to both of you.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hello.

DETROW: Aya, let's begin with you and this U.N.-backed report on hunger in the Gaza Strip. What exactly did it say?

BATRAWY: Well, they say that basically everyone in Gaza - 95% of the population - is at crisis level or worse. And basically what that means is you're struggling to eat. And they give examples of families selling some other clothes or collecting trash in order just to have enough money to afford food. And they say that over the past six weeks, 340,000 people are at catastrophic levels of food insecurity. Those are famine-like conditions of starvation, and it does include death in some cases. And they say that number is expected to climb to half a million in the coming months. Now, have a listen to an aid worker with Mercy Corps in Gaza describe conditions. And for safety reasons, we didn't use his name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Most of the children in Gaza are suffering from both malnutrition and dehydration. So this is something that I experienced with my children. They are suffering from diseases caused by contaminated water.

BATRAWY: And without fresh water and disease spreading, these kinds of illnesses, combined with the collapse of hospitals, are leading to severe malnutrition in some kids, with bones protruding, underweight and dying. And here, I should note, hunger and images of emaciated children - these are new to Gaza since October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing people there and taking hostages. After that, Israel declared a full siege on Gaza and has drastically curbed what enters.

BOWMAN: And, Scott, I just spoke with another aid worker in Gaza. He didn't want his name used for security reasons, as well. Now, he's been an aid worker for a decade, going to Sudan, Iraq, Ukraine. He said Gaza is the worst he's ever seen. And he told me he passed this massive camp with a makeshift cemetery. What haunted him was he saw seven or eight fresh holes dug, waiting for the next dead civilians.

DETROW: Well, Tom, what happened with the pier that the U.S. built off Gaza to provide an extra lifeline for this kind of aid?

BOWMAN: It is working now but after fits and starts because of bad weather. Since it started operating on May 17, it's moved about 6,700 tons of humanitarian aid. Now, that sounds like a lot, but the road crossings into Gaza have moved tens of thousands of tons. But that's still not enough, say aid officials. The U.S. has always said the pier is a supplement to the more efficient and busy road crossings. But now the main crossing at Rafah in southern Gaza is closed because of Israeli military operations, and that has drastically reduced humanitarian aid.

DETROW: Aya, Israel and the U.N. have been trading accusations for a while now over who is to blame for this aid not reaching people in Gaza. To you, who is responsible here?

BATRAWY: I mean, well, international law says that the occupying power - in this case, Israel - is obliged to protect civilians and make sure that their basic needs are met. And that obviously includes food, water, and healthcare. But Israel says, look. We're doing our part. The U.N., specifically the World Food Programme and the U.N. Relief Works Agency, known as UNWRA - they need to stop blaming Israel and do their job. They're saying they're not doing an efficient job at picking up the aid and distributing it.

But when I reached the World Food Programme and I spoke to them today, they said, look. You know, Israeli military has to make conditions safer on the ground for us because the operating environment across Gaza has become, in the words of the spokesperson, almost impossible in the last few weeks.

And we also have heard from groups like Mercy Corps that say aid is just trickling into Gaza through crossings. But the majority of stuff that's coming in now that Israel is allowing is coming from Israeli merchants, and these are on commercial trucks. And what that looks like is market stalls with the kind of fruits and poultry we haven't seen in months, so that could include, like, mangoes and chicken. But people can't afford it. People are just walking past it. They can't afford it. They haven't worked in months. Banks don't operate. And the prices have skyrocketed. So people just can't afford this stuff.

DETROW: So, Tom, based on your conversations with aid workers and U.S. officials, what's the path forward here?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. said it's working with the U.N. and Israel to come up with solutions, such as better communications between U.N. humanitarian workers and Israel. That aid worker I spoke with in Gaza said, you know, communications is vital. Right now it's working in some places with the Israeli military, but not others. And they don't want to get caught in a crossfire or be mistaken for Hamas fighters. He also said, listen. We need armored vehicles. He's driving around in just a regular car. That's something else the U.N. wants, too. Armored vehicles will be really important to provide that security for these aid workers.

BATRAWY: And I'll just say, you know, we've reported also on the U.N. saying they want to work with police on the ground for local security, but those police have been targeted by Israel because they're also deemed as an arm of Hamas. So it's unclear who could provide security on the ground at this point because the aid organizations - they don't want to hire just gunmen and gangs like the commercial trucks have. But one nurse told me that - she said, look. There are cherries now but no gauze. So it's not just food. It's also a lack of fuel for hospitals and ambulances and medical supplies.

DETROW: That is NPR's Aya Batrawy, as well as Tom Bowman. Thanks to both of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

BATRAWY: Thank you. 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.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.