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Egyptian aid group head says the amount of aid going to Gaza is 'a drop in the ocean'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Mohsen Sarhan spent much of the last two weeks at the Rafah Crossing south of Gaza.

MOHSEN SARHAN: Every half an hour you will have three or four rockets lighting the sky less than one kilometer from where we are.

SUMMERS: Sarhan is the CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank, one of the largest nonprofits in Egypt. For days now, we've been hearing about truckloads of aid being allowed into Gaza through Rafah. Both Israel and Egypt have controlled what has gotten into Gaza for years. In times of peace, Rafah is a main entry point for supplies.

SARHAN: Before this conflict, a minimum of 50 to 68 trucks used to go through that border each and every day. And there was a continuous flow for people, medicine, food, whatever in and out of the border, just like any crossing between two countries.

SUMMERS: But since the October 7 Hamas attack against Israel, which killed more than 1,000 people, Israel has set siege on Gaza, keeping shipments of water, fuel, food and medical supplies from entering. This has created a desperate situation inside Gaza, as millions of civilians struggle for basic necessities and hospitals run out of supplies. And at the Rafah Crossing, the scene has been dramatic.

SARHAN: We had more than 200 trucks parked right at the crossing, in addition to maybe 15 cargo planes.

SUMMERS: But Israel would not allow the aid in. Truck drivers were sleeping in their trucks. Activists were protesting, and bombs kept falling.

SARHAN: And this area that Israel was bombarding, it's wasteland. We don't have any interpretation for that, except they were trying to intimidate and frighten the aid workers that were stationed at the border, that if they crossed, they will be bombed as well.

SUMMERS: Eventually, 20 trucks were allowed through on Saturday. A few dozen more have been allowed in since. But still, much of the aid is waiting at the crossing. Sarhan, who returned to Cairo two days ago, checks in regularly with his team in Rafah.

SARHAN: Now, in the evening of the 25 of October, Israel is still bombing the area around the crossing more intensely than before. They haven't stopped. They only stop for a few hours to clear some trucks, and then they start bombing again.

SUMMERS: When I talked to him earlier today, I started by asking him about what he's hearing from people inside Gaza who are waiting for aid that's so close, yet so far.

SARHAN: Maybe twice a day, I'm calling many authorities in Gaza. And the situation is, as of yesterday - that's after aid got in, after aid got in - now we have the health sector is operating at less than 5% of its capacity. You have people on ventilators. You have people in ICU units. You have children in incubators. And you have fuel that is about to run out. Now, as we are speaking now, they have a few hours left. And Israel is very adamant about not allowing any fuel in. If the fuel runs out, all these machines will stop, and this is instant death.

SUMMERS: As I am listening to you describe the conditions there and the dire need for aid, I have to imagine that if you were a person who is seeking that aid, it is very difficult to know that it is so close - that some of that aid that is waiting to get in can't do so. Are you hearing that concern from people?

SARHAN: Yeah, it was a nightmare. It was a nightmare for us as aid workers. For example, I'll speak from the experience of the Egyptian Food Bank. Once we got clearance from the Egyptian authorities that we can go to Rafah, in exactly 30 hours - that's less than two days - we were able to dispatch 41 trucks of aid. And we were not the only ones. So we reached an approximately 4,000 tons of aid that could have brought a very valuable and critical lifeline to those people that are dying and starving. I'll tell you something, five or six days ago, the hospitals there started doing surgeries without anesthetics. Could you believe that this is happening in the modern world that we live now, that some of...

SUMMERS: Because they didn't have enough access to anesthetics, they had to do surgeries without them.

SARHAN: It's crazy. This is medieval. This is medieval. You couldn't even start to imagine that this could happen in the modern world.

SUMMERS: Let me jump in here for a second, because as I'm listening to you describe the dire need there on the ground, the aid that still cannot - there - some aid is getting in, of course - but the aid that can still not get in. Can you just help us understand how severe this need is and how far the aid that is reaching these people can go to actually getting them the food, the medical supplies that they need to continue to endure.

SARHAN: So since Sunday now, we've been getting an average of 20 trucks a day. The U.N. estimates is at least 100 trucks a day have to pass through - at least - not including the fuel trucks. So as of now, we've managed to get a maximum of 20 trucks a day and zero fuel trucks.

SUMMERS: So I'm hearing you say there that what's getting in right now, that is just a drop in the bucket to what is needed. Am I hearing that right?

SARHAN: It's a drop in an ocean. It's not a drop in a bucket. It's a tiny drop in an ocean of death. It's sad. It's sad.

SUMMERS: Are you concerned that if a ground invasion begins, there will no longer be any aid at all that is allowed in through Rafah Crossing because it could be too dangerous to do so?

SARHAN: I don't believe that to be a concern. Aid will still go through. I believe Israel is mostly concerned with the northern part, so probably will continue moving aid into the south and using aid as a bait to lure people from the north to the south. And I think that's very evil and defies the entire concept of aid - that aid should serve the people that needs it. So we're just sitting and watching, and we know exactly what's happening.

SUMMERS: That's Mohsen Sarhan, he is the CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank. Thank you.

SARHAN: Thank you. 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.

Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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