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Israeli Attacks On Gaza Are Extremely Alarming, U.N. Agency Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Violence in the Middle East escalated so abruptly last week that we had to pose a question to Israeli spokesman Mark Regev. From this distance, it looks like a war. Is it a war?

MARK REGEV: Well, it definitely looks like one.

INSKEEP: Today, it looks even more like one as Hamas fires more rockets out of Gaza into Israel, and Israeli airstrikes have demolished more buildings in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with CBS.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We'll do whatever it takes to restore order and quiet and the security of our people and deterrence. We're trying to degrade Hamas's terrorist abilities and to degrade their will to do this again. So it'll take some time.

INSKEEP: Our colleague Daniel Estrin is covering the conflict.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Just this past night, Israel says scores of warplanes again attacked another part of what Israel calls the underground metro. We don't have any word of casualties from that, but these strikes have been keeping Palestinians up all night, terrified.

INSKEEP: Even without those casualties from the latest strikes, Palestinian officials have said the strikes have killed a total of 197 people over recent days, including many children. Israel says eight Israeli dead include a child. We've been hearing many voices from across the conflict zone, and today, we've called the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which helps refugees in Gaza. Leni Stenseth is the deputy commissioner general of that agency, and she's on the line from New York. Good morning.

LENI STENSETH: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from your staff in Gaza?

STENSETH: The humanitarian situation in Gaza is extremely alarming. Last night, the attacks from the Israeli warplanes were heavier and lasted longer than ever before. And as we heard, the last week of fighting has left almost 200 people dead and more than a thousand people injured, and more than 50 children have lost their lives. And infrastructure has been severely damaged, including many hospitals and schools. And what people on the ground express is a sense of terror and the nightmare that doesn't end. The ongoing military operation causes immense distress on the population that there's nowhere to flee. And the psychological impact on children that have to live through night after night with constant attacks from airplanes, hearing the shelling, needs to be acknowledged.

INSKEEP: I want to note, also, you said something about infrastructure. We've been told for some days now that electricity has been disrupted and also the water supply. Is that correct?

STENSETH: That's correct, and our teams on the ground are now struggling to provide clean drinking water and make sure that the hospitals are able to operate because they have been targeted indirectly as a part of these ongoing hostilities.

INSKEEP: What is the role of international agencies in this situation?

STENSETH: International agencies need to do what they can to ensure that the parties are able to reach an agreement to stop the fighting. Several things needs to happen. First, all the fighting must stop immediately. The parties must agree to a cease-fire. International law must be respected by both sides, and civilians must be protected. And second, financial support must be made available to enable the delivery of emergency assistance and protections. And thirdly, there is a need to find a political solution to this conflict. Palestinian and Israeli civilians continue to suffer from a repeated cycle of violence and conflict, and this will only stop with a political resolution to the conflict.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about a complexity, if I might, of this circumstance, because you are attempting to help civilians who are not combatants, but they're in a war zone where there are actual actors. There are actual fighters. And there is this political divide that you describe.

We interviewed Omar Shaban in Gaza last week. He's an analyst with a think tank there. And we asked if Hamas is in any way gaining from this cycle of destruction. Here's a little bit of what he had to say.

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OMAR SHABAN: A lot of destruction have been into Gaza. This is not the first time. Hamas expects some money to come from a certain country to reconstruct this Gaza again and regain popularity.

INSKEEP: That was a remarkable statement for someone to make in Gaza, I think. He's saying Hamas makes a political point by firing into Israel and then relies on the international community to fix the damage in Gaza. Is that how it works?

STENSETH: What we are focusing on is to aid the civilians. The civilian population in Gaza are the victims of the ongoing fighting. So are civilians on the other side of the conflict. Our focus is to ensure that they have the services they need, that they're able to live in a society that is peaceful and that is able to provide education, health and what they need to prosper in their lives.

So certainly, yes, right now we're focusing on providing the immediate needs that they are in. You know, they are asking us for clean drinking water. They're asking us for safety. And they've taken shelter in our schools, and we're doing now what we can to provide protection in a situation where they have an ongoing pandemic. And we're afraid that we will see in the coming days and weeks a huge spike in the number of COVID cases in the Gaza Strip, due to what is going on right now.

INSKEEP: Do you worry that you're getting politically used, though, even though what you're obviously trying to do is provide basic services to children and other innocent people?

STENSETH: So what we are - we are doing humanitarian work. We are focusing on the needs of the civilians, and we're urging the parties to stop the hostilities as soon as possible and to reach an agreement about the cease-fire.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, thank you very much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

STENSETH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Leni Stenseth with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which is helping Palestinians refugees and others in Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.