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The Devastation On The Ground In Gaza City


As we heard, more than 220 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in just over a week and some 40 children are among the dead. At least 1,500 have been injured. Earlier today, we reached Robert Turner. He is director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works agency in Gaza, which receives a large portion of its funding from the U.S. The agency operates schools in Gaza and, when needed, those buildings double as shelters. Right now, they're housing more than 20,000 Palestinians seeking protection from Israeli missile strikes. Turner described what he says is an all-too-familiar routine for many in the shelters.

ROBERT TURNER: This is a third conflict in five and a half years. And I was speaking to some of the displaced and there was one older gentleman who had left his home at one in the morning, walked for two hours to get to the school and this is the third time he has been in that same classroom as a displaced person in five and a half years. There's this tragic automaticity to it here. You know - oh my God, they're bombing again, we moved to the school. And it's a sign of the trust that they have in us that they feel that they can come to us and they'll be relatively secure and safe. But it's tragic that - you know - if you're a six-year-old child here, this is your third war. This the third time you've probably been packed up by your parents and hauled off to one of our schools.

CORNISH: We've seen photos of bomb shelters in Israel. Can you give us a sense of the facilities in Gaza? I mean, how fortified are they? What are these spaces like?

TURNER: Oh, there are none. They're just in regular school buildings. There are no...


TURNER: Oh. There they go. There are no special hardened rooms in our schools of any kind. They're not coming because our buildings are any safer. They're coming because they believe that there's a protection that the United Nations offers to them by being in our facilities.

CORNISH: And just now we heard a bombing in the background. I mean, how common is that? How close is that to where you are?

TURNER: Well, that was hard to distinguish if that was outgoing or incoming. But it wasn't very far away - a few hundred meters I would guess.

CORNISH: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his military will keep hitting Gaza so long as rockets are fired from there into Israel. Hamas also has rejected the Egyptian proposals for cease-fire. What's the attitude of people you're speaking to about the rockets being fired into Israel?

TURNER: I visited all of Southern Gaza today and I asked them about the cease-fire. You know, everybody has these choices well, if the situation afterwards is the same as it was two weeks ago, which was government employees who worked for the former defective government had not been paid since March. The banks were closed. The blockade was in place, no one can leave, then it's just a matter of time until it comes again. This place is tiny, but the density of some of the refugee camps - for example, the Beach refugee camp - if I've done my calculations right - there's 445,000 people per square mile, whereas Manhattan is 67,000 people per square mile. You can't fire a shell or drop a missile in a place like that and not create a lot of damage.

CORNISH: You've talked about the chaos this creates for the population there because it is such a small space.

TURNER: And they can't leave. You know, Gaza has been under a very strict blockade. It is in its eighth year now. You know, if something happens in Washington, then you could go to West Virginia or you can go to Nebraska - you can get away. Here, when these people are coming to our schools, it's not like they're moving, you know, hundreds of miles away. They're moving a mile away or two miles away. They're still stuck within this 150 square miles. Now, according to the IDF, nearly 2000 sites have been struck in the last eight days - all within that 150 square miles.

CORNISH: You've written about something that I actually just did, which is to kind of list the numbers of casualties and injured. And you sort of warned against this habit, particularly in the media. Why?

TURNER: Well, statistics are important, we need to track it. But I think there's too much focus on numbers. The fact that there's more than 200 dead is a tragedy, there's no question. But it would be no less a tragedy at 150 or 250. I think what we can't do is forget that each one of those numbers represents a story - that each one of those numbers represents a family that's been affected - a community that's been affected. They're not numbers. You know, it's depersonalizing or dehumanizing to talk about them as numbers - these were people. And their stories need to be told and what's happening here needs to be witnessed.

CORNISH: Robert Turner is director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works agency in Gaza. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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