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Without power or a place to go, civilians in Gaza shelter in fear of airstrikes

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today is the fifth day of war between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel. More than a thousand people have died on each side.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Palestinian officials say thousands more have been wounded in Gaza and a quarter million people have been displaced. And Gaza is where we are going to start this hour.

HISHAM MHANNA: Gaza is now cut off from the outside world. There is a full-scale drop in the telecommunications system.

CHANG: Hisham Mhanna is a communication officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross. We reached him today in Gaza before its main power plant shut down. He says that could throw hospitals into crisis.

MHANNA: We fear that hospitals may turn into graveyards if they are not fed with electricity. They are now running either on generators or solar systems, which are not enough to maintain them operational.

KELLY: As Israel blocks fuel, food and water from entering Gaza, the airstrikes continue. Israel says it has hit 2,500 targets in the Gaza Strip.

GHADA ALHADDAD: Last night was one of the deadliest and most horrible nights I have ever witnessed. Many of my friends and colleagues have lost one of their loved ones.

CHANG: That is Ghada Alhaddad, media and communications officer for Oxfam, speaking to us today from Gaza. Every night, she and her parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews take shelter in her ground-floor apartment.

ALHADDAD: We try to calm the children down by telling them stories and telling them that these bombardments are only fireworks. But children - our old - like, my family children started to realize that we are lying to them, and these are not sounds of fireworks.

CHANG: About half of Gaza's more than 2 million residents are children under 15.

KELLY: Alhaddad says she is not certain what's to come, with more airstrikes and a possible ground invasion ahead.

ALHADDAD: I cannot imagine what would happen in the following few hours. Am I going to be dead or alive? I really don't know. But I know for sure that I'm afraid. It's night right now. It's dark. And you feel, like, also helpless. You cannot do anything. You just, like, wait for the day to come to see what happened in the night.

CHANG: Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are now sheltering in schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA. We reached their director of communications today in Athens - Juliette Touma - and I asked her how well she's been able to keep in touch with her colleagues in Gaza.

JULIETTE TOUMA: We are in constant touch with our colleagues on the ground. UNRWA has 13,000 staff members who work with the agency on the ground. Many of them are still on the front lines working. However, today is a very sad day for UNRWA and the rest of the United Nations because we can confirm that 11 of our staff have been killed since the 7 of...

CHANG: Yes.

TOUMA: ...October. So it's a very sad day for all of us.

CHANG: I'm so, so sorry. What more can you...

TOUMA: Thank you.

CHANG: ...Tell us about those individuals?

TOUMA: Five of them were teachers. One was a gynecologist, and one is an engineer, and others were support staff. They were killed, many of them, while at home with their families due to the airstrikes and the bombardments.

CHANG: And what are you hearing now about how the rest of your colleagues in Gaza are trying to stay safe? How are they doing so right now? Do you know?

TOUMA: People are terrified, and some - they're really terrified. I mean, we get all these messages. Luckily, there was a little bit of internet in the Gaza Strip, so one staff member said to me, I think this is going to be the end for me and my family. One staff member said, we'll be in touch tomorrow if I'm still alive. And for many, many of them, this is, like, the seventh time that they go through an escalation in violence and a conflict. But they say to us that this is unprecedented.

CHANG: I understand that - now, that more than 200,000 people who have been displaced are now sheltering in something like 88 UNRWA schools across the Gaza Strip. Can you just tell us about the conditions at those schools right now and what supplies you need most?

TOUMA: So these are schools that, normally, would give education to about 300,000 kids in the Gaza Strip. Now, we had to close our schools and turn them into shelters because since the 7 of October, just on Saturday, we've had people flocking into our schools to take shelter. And the numbers continue to increase as we speak. We've run out, right now, of basic supplies, including things like mattresses and cleaning material and hygiene kits. We've been giving people water and bread, but we're running very, very fast of our supplies. And then, not all of these schools are safe, very sadly. At least two of the schools sheltering the displaced have been hit by airstrikes.

CHANG: Right.

TOUMA: Fortunately, we did not have any casualties during the time.

CHANG: Well, given that two of your schools have already been hit, how much of a concern is there that the remaining schools will also be hit while you're using them as shelters?

TOUMA: It's a reminder that schools are a place of sanctuary. Schools should be protected at all times. Now, in these cases, this is a school that is also a U.N. school, so it's doubly protected. It should never have been hit. It's a violation of law. It's a violation of all war laws.

CHANG: Meanwhile, Israel has announced that it has amassed troops in preparation for an expected ground invasion of Gaza. How is your team preparing for that?

TOUMA: Well, first of all, the U.N. is calling for all fighting everywhere to come to an end. And we're fearing the worst in terms of the coming few days. It is very hard for us, of course, to predict what's going to happen. And with the tightening of the blockade, and without our ability to get in basic supplies and humanitarian assistance, we're going to be in a very, very difficult situation.

CHANG: Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, the U.N. Agency for Palestinian Refugees. Thank you very much for joining us today.

TOUMA: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.