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U.N. relief agency says they have lost contact with colleagues in Gaza


Communications across Gaza are down - no mobile or internet service, no way to reach ambulances or hospitals. There are reports that Israel is behind this. That has not been confirmed. Aid organizations say they are cut off from most of their colleagues in Gaza as civilians run out of food and water. Juliette Touma is director of communications for the United Nations Palestine Refugee Agency, also known as UNRWA. She joins us now from Amman, Jordan. Thank you for being with us.

JULIETTE TOUMA: Thank you, Scott, for having us.

SIMON: What can you tell us? What do you know about the situation in Gaza right now?

TOUMA: So as of last night, communications with our staff in Gaza was almost entirely lost. We continue to have one line of communications, but even that is patchy. And it's only with the UNRWA director in Gaza. We've just managed to establish a form of communications, like a sign of life, with the leaders of our area offices, and that's also on - only through satellite phone. But that's the only way of communications. We do not have internet connection with the colleagues, and we don't have any of the social media, including WhatsApp and such. And there is no mobile telephony. And we do know that landlines were cut already a few days back before this total blackout.

SIMON: I gather you do know that you've lost colleagues in Gaza.

TOUMA: At least 53 colleagues, yes. They were killed during the war in Gaza since the 7 of October. And I'm afraid that the numbers are likely to be higher, given the very, very heavy bombardments and airstrikes overnight. But also due to the telecommunications challenges, we were not able to check in and get information on whether our staff are all accounted for or not.

SIMON: Do you know anything about the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza?

TOUMA: Yes. Today there were no trucks. Over the past few days, there were just over 80 - 8-0 - trucks, which is really nothing. I mean, these are crumbs, and they do not at all fulfill the huge and overwhelming and growing needs of people in Gaza, including 600,000 who have sought shelter in UNRWA schools and medical facilities and other buildings that we had to open, including, for example, our warehouses.

SIMON: As you note, the bombardment has increased. Does that seem to end the possibility of aid shipments, or are you hoping something can be negotiated?

TOUMA: Look, Scott, there should be a flow - a regular flow and a daily flow and an increased flow - of humanitarian aid into Gaza. There are also should be fuel on those convoys, so the number of trucks on these convoys needs to increase. And also, fuel needs to come into the Gaza Strip because that's also running very, very, very low. And there should be this humanitarian passage that is regular and sustained. At the same time, there should be a humanitarian cease-fire. There is no question about that. There's too many people. Too many people in the Gaza Strip have lost their lives totally unnecessarily. And there should be a cease-fire everywhere for the sake of everyone, so that people have a little bit of respite and so that people are not killed every single day.

SIMON: What can the international community do, as you see it, to help people who are besieged in Gaza?

TOUMA: Look, there should be more pressure on parties to the conflict - all parties to the conflict - to stop all of this and to allow the flow of humanitarian aid. This is the least that can be done at this stage for the people of Gaza, our friends, our colleagues who are in Gaza. I've been to Gaza myself over the past few months on a regular basis. People have been trapped for the past 16 years because of the blockade, but now they're completely strangled. They're strangled. And with this loss of communications, we really do not know. We do not know who's alive and who's dead, including among our own colleagues.

SIMON: Juliette Touma is director of communications for the U.N.'s Palestine Refugee Agency. Thank you very much for being with us.

TOUMA: Thank you, Scott.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.