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As cease-fire talks continue, U.S. airdrops food into Gaza as famine fears grow

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A member of Israel's war cabinet meets with Vice President Kamala Harris today. Benny Gantz is visiting the United States without the approval of a political rival, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The United States is trying to get more cooperation from its ally and also trying to broker a temporary cease-fire in Gaza. The U.S. has also begun to air dropping supplies into Gaza. So let's get a picture of life there from Jan Egeland, who is secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and has just returned to Oslo after a visit to Gaza. Welcome to the program, sir.

JAN EGELAND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Three days and three nights - what was the experience like?

EGELAND: Well, I was prepared for a nightmare, but this was worse. There hasn't been a population that has been living so densely populated under such an indiscriminate bombardment for such a long time, with no escape, in modern history. Rafah is a tiny place. It's a 10th of the municipality of Oslo where I sit. One-point-four million people are crammed together there. All have stories of having fled two, three, four, five, up to six times to Rafah, which is the last escape. Remember, the borders are not open.

INSKEEP: Right.

EGELAND: Israel, that is withholding aid, has also not opened the border for the innocent that are fleeing from the bombardment and the crossfire.

INSKEEP: I'll just remind people. Rafah is the city that Israel is preparing or talking about invading. It has captured a great deal of the rest of Gaza, and something like 1.4 million people have fled there. I was reflecting on the fact I've talked with other people from aid agencies that have gone in and gone out the same day you were there at night. What are the nights like?

EGELAND: Well, one of the things that I didn't really understand was this humming, intense humming all the time. I thought, is there a generator? Can we switch it off? No, it's the Israeli drones that is just above everybody's head. And of course, that makes people scared that there would be an invasion of tanks and machine guns and bombardment of these dumb bombs, many provided by the United States, by the way, that are destroying entire neighborhoods. I believe it will be an end now. I hope that Kamala Harris, President Biden, will convince the Israelis that it would be a bloodbath to continue into Rafah, a bloodbath among completely innocent people who had nothing to do. These are women and children, nothing to do with the horrors of the 7th of October.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, Israel has said that there are Hamas units there that they want to destroy. You are pointing out that there are also a great number of women and children, people in civilian population.

EGELAND: I'm sure there were Hamas fighters on the ground somewhere. I didn't see a single one, really. What I saw was schools that could take normally 500 kids, now 4,500 people sharing 18 latrines. I saw a place where we in Norwegian Refugee Council has provided tents. We had 300 tents in the beginning. Now there are 27,000 people there. This is what you see in Gaza. You see completely innocent women, children, families. They had nothing to do with the 7th of October. And they are paying the price now for continued war and bloodshed.

INSKEEP: You said you were there...

EGELAND: And no aid coming in.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. You said you were there last week. Last week there was a chaotic scramble for food from aid trucks. A good number of people...

EGELAND: Yup.

INSKEEP: ...Were killed. Is that representative of the desperation people face?

EGELAND: Especially in the north, yes, where there are still 300,000 surviving, barely, in the rubble, because northern Gaza is destroyed. This - these were trucks, and there was a stampede. And then Israeli soldiers fired on the desperate people. That's where also the U.S. and others are now doing airdrops. The one way, however, of getting relief to the population is to use the border crossings called Karni and Erez. They are next door. We could have hundreds of trucks in. We could provide for the civilian - innocent civilian population. Airdrops is not - is a very primitive way of providing relief.

INSKEEP: Right. Right. Mr. Egeland, thank you very much - really appreciate it.

EGELAND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we'll note he talked about Israeli troops firing on people. Israel has said its troops fired in self-defense, but has not denied that they fired during that incident, in which a number of people were killed around food aid trucks. Jan Egeland is secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former head of humanitarian affairs for the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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