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As conditions worsen in Gaza, humanitarian workers' jobs become more difficult

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The food charity World Central Kitchen says it will resume aid operations in Gaza, less than a month after seven of its humanitarian workers were killed in an Israeli military attack. The help is badly needed as the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza grows, with more than 1 million people on the brink of famine. Now, a group of 51 aid organizations is calling for urgent action in an open letter to President Biden. They're asking the president to use his influence to get the concrete steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering and the safety of aid workers that Biden demanded from Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, after the killings of the World Central Kitchen workers. One of the signatories of the letter is the humanitarian group, the International Rescue Committee. Bob Kitchen is the vice president for emergencies, and he joins me now. He was recently in Gaza. Good morning.

BOB KITCHEN: Good morning.

FADEL: So what are you asking President Biden to do in this open letter?

KITCHEN: Well, we're asking for three things. First, we need a cease-fire. That's the most important priority for the people of Gaza right now. The violence must stop. Included in that is that we need safe access for aid workers. We, like World Central Kitchen, have been attacked - our guest house was attacked, staff were injured. And we're not the only organizations. There is a trend of attacks against NGOs. And within that environment, it's very difficult to deliver scaled humanitarian aid. So we need a safe environment for both civilians and aid workers.

We then need a huge increase in the amount of aid that goes in to meet the needs in the face of famine. And then finally, we need very urgently for any suggestion of an offensive into Rafa to go away. Rafa houses more than 1 million people, civilians, and it needs to be protected. The civilians need to be safe in that city.

FADEL: Now, these are all demands we've heard before. You're calling for a lasting cease-fire, a safe environment, the preservation of civilian life. You're also calling for the release of hostages still in captivity in Gaza. So what's different about these demands in this letter now?

KITCHEN: Well, I think they're the right things. We've been demanding for a while, and we still haven't seen them come to fruition, so we're maintaining our voice. I'd say one thing that has changed are the stakes that we collectively with the civilians on the ground are facing, with a continued trend of attacks against aid workers. And then most pressing is that we've got more than a million people facing famine.

FADEL: Yeah.

KITCHEN: They're on the brink of famine right now. So the urgency within which we need safety for aid workers and a huge increase in aid is being felt very profoundly right now.

FADEL: Are you seeing any improvement on the ground in Gaza since Biden made these demands? I mean, your letter says the government of Israel's policies have brought 1.1 million people into famine conditions and created impossible conditions for a scaled humanitarian response. But Israeli officials are saying they've increased aid getting into Gaza, and they're addressing this. Is that what you're seeing?

KITCHEN: No. In short, the data suggests - and this has been celebrated by the media, and I think it's way too soon to celebrate - we've seen the data suggest a very small increase in the number of trucks that are getting across into Gaza in the region of 10 to 15 trucks additionally each day. That's not what we need. We need hundreds of more trucks. The slight increase brings the total to still less than half the number of trucks that used to cross per day before the war. And before the war, we weren't facing a famine. So announcements and small changes are not the cause for celebration. We need the trickle of aid that's being allowed in to turn into a flood of aid right now.

FADEL: And very quickly in the last few seconds, you returned from Gaza, met with U.S. policymakers - what stood out to you in those conversations?

KITCHEN: I feel frustrated coming away from those conversations that we're not making the changes. The U.S. government isn't making the demands that they need to to see the humanitarian conditions change on the ground.

FADEL: That's Bob Kitchen, the International Rescue Committee's vice president for emergencies. Thank you for your time.

KITCHEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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