UNRWA staffer in Gaza: 'We are gradually losing the ability to keep people alive'

John Whyte is one of only about 20 foreign UNRWA staff working in Rafah. 'The reality is that nowhere in Gaza is safe,' he tells The National

Palestinians take refuge from Israeli attacks at an UNRWA school in Daraj, Gaza city. UNRWA facilities are home to 1.4 million Gazans. Getty Images
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When John Whyte looks out of his window every morning in Rafah, Gaza, he sees two things that drive home his new reality.

First, there is the view down the coast of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where hundreds of lorries stuffed with essential aid for millions of Palestinians in Gaza have formed a convoy, waiting to be searched and cleared for entry. Hundreds of tonnes of aid is being collected, stacked and organised every day in Cairo, and his thoughts often wander to when it may reach Gaza.

And right outside his door, he sees the sea of tents and other temporary shelters that have sprung up in recent weeks, as hundreds of thousands of displaced people descended on the headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, in search of protection from Israel’s bombs and artillery.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled to Rafah, one of the few areas Israeli forces have yet to launch sustained bombardment campaigns. UNRWA facilities are now a temporary home for about 1.4 million Gazans.

“If you look outside my office, people are trying to find space wherever they can. They’ve come here specifically because this is a deconflicted area and they hope they are safe,” says Mr Whyte, a field programme support officer at UNRWA, whose previous posts include Damascus and Tripoli in Lebanon.

“But the reality is that nowhere in Gaza is safe.”

As one of only about 20 foreign UNRWA staff working in the embattled Gaza Strip, Mr Whyte’s work is centred on trying to secure petrol and diesel for vehicles, delivering humanitarian assistance and coordinating a host of other projects aimed at keeping people alive as the war enters its fifth month.

He was a part of two UNRWA convoys that attempted to deliver aid to Gaza city in December. One of those, he says, was a close call.

Mr Whyte was on board one of six lorries carrying food to Rimal in west Gaza city, where 15,000 to 20,000 internally displaced people in desperate need of food were stranded.

“We got through an Israeli checkpoint and suddenly there were thousands of people running towards us trying to get something from us,” says Mr Whyte.

“A sniper shot one of our labourers, who was almost killed. We were trying to deal with the casualty, deal with the thousands of desperate people trying to get at the food in the trucks – we didn’t make it to Rimal.

“It was a very challenging experience. People are so desperate.”

In addition to food and medicine, the biggest need right now, he says, are tents and shelter items.

“They need clothes, blankets, mattresses – all the basics to get them through winter. People I met today were pointing at their feet – a lot of them are barefoot,” he says.

“But most of all, they need a ceasefire and an end to this war.”

In recent weeks, people have been presenting with hepatitis A, diarrhoea and other communicable diseases that the lack of space and medicine makes difficult to treat.

“Every which way we turn, there are obstacles,” he says.

Although UNRWA informs Israel every day of the locations of its shelters – places that are protected under international humanitarian law – by early January, 146 UNRWA workers had been killed, the biggest death toll suffered by any UN agency in a conflict.

UNRWA reports there have been more than 270 attacks on its facilities in Gaza, with 372 people killed.

Despite its critical work, UNRWA received a major financial blow last month after Israel presented allegations that 12 of the agency's 13,000 workers had been involved in the October 7 Hamas attacks.

More than a dozen countries, including top donor US, announced they would suspend some $440 million in aid to the agency following the allegations.

Though those claims have yet to be independently verified and an investigation is under way, the UN has condemned the “abhorrent alleged acts” and fired nine of its workers, including a social worker and several teachers.

In the US, Republican politicians have claimed UNRWA is a “terrorist-supporting entity” and the “identical twin of Hamas”. The US is UNRWA’s biggest donor, providing $338 million in funding in 2021.

But on the ground in Gaza, the consequences of shuttering UNRWA could be horrific.

“You have 2.2 million people relying on UNRWA for life-saving humanitarian assistance,” says Mr Whyte. “Who would provide that?”

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said last week that only $300,000 of the $121 million in US funding to UNRWA had been put on hold.

In addition to fears over funding, recent days have seen Mr Whyte and the more than one million other people now in and around Rafah worried by the threat of an imminent Israeli ground assault.

“Everybody here is just praying for a ceasefire but we’re hearing the exact opposite,” he says.

All the while, about 500 fewer aid lorries – the equivalent of Gaza’s entire commercial sector – are being allowed into the enclave every day.

UNRWA has not been able to get any aid into northern Gaza for 10 days, with numerous missions denied by Israel.

“We simply cannot meet that need,” says Mr Whyte.

“We are gradually losing the battle to keep people alive.”

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Updated: February 07, 2024, 7:11 PM