As Gaza Settles Into Cease-Fire, U.N. Takes Stock Of Damage

Audie Cornish talks to Robert Turner, director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, about what the organization is calling a "health and humanitarian disaster" in Gaza.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The United Nations says Gaza is facing a health and humanitarian disaster. At the peak of the conflict, more than 270,000 people sought shelter in U.N. schools. Earlier today, we spoke with Robert Turner. He works for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which manages the schools. At least seven of them were hit during the fighting. Turner says the U.N. is trying to assess the damage.

ROBERT TURNER: It looks like about 100 of our installations have been damaged - some of them lightly, just windows blown out from the concussion from blasts, some of them much more seriously. The ones that are most seriously damaged are in the eastern and northern areas that was active conflict, areas that we have not yet had access to. We're going have to have Mine Action, UXO or unexploded ordinance experts survey these buildings before we can go in and do proper engineering studies. But it's - we're supposed to start school on the 24th of August. That's when we're supposed to have, you know, about 235,000 children moving into these schools to start their school year. And it's going to be a huge challenge to be able to meet that date.

CORNISH: Over the last few weeks, your organization has also, in the course of routine checks, discovered rockets hidden in vacant Gaza schools - at least two incidents reported, I think upwards of three. What more has your agency found about that, and how does that jeopardize your ability to create a safe haven?

TURNER: Well, it was three events. And, of course, the reason the world knows about that is because we were very open and transparent about it. We informed all of the relevant parties. We were public in our condemnation of whoever was responsible for it. And we were very clear that all parties to the conflict need to respect the neutrality and inviolability of our institutions or installations. And by placing weapons in one of our installations, you bring that into question. And that cannot stand - that cannot happen.

CORNISH: The U.N. has appealed for hundreds of millions of dollars to meet what it calls urgent needs. But beyond shelter, what would you say are the most urgent needs at this point?

TURNER: Well, I think we're looking at a couple different levels. One, right now, is particularly power and water - but also just food. I mean, the economy has effectively halted for the past month. The banks were open hardly any times. Most of the shops have been closed. A few more are opening today. But the socioeconomic conditions are serious and need to be addressed. There's also, I mean, initial estimates, which I think are probably going to rise as there are 10,000 homes that are going to be uninhabitable. That's going to be an enormous reconstruction job. That's not clear that's going to be possible because the Israeli authorities have not allowed construction materials into Gaza for the private sector. If building materials don't become available, how are these people going to reconstruct their homes and reconstruct their lives?

CORNISH: Although that's very much a possibility, given that Israel says that they were able to destroy 32 Hamas tunnels - tunnels ostensibly built with construction materials, correct?

TURNER: That's right. And so I think this is why, you know, these discussions that are going on in Cairo - and as we've said from the outset and as has the secretary-general, we have to have a cease-fire. We need a cessation of hostilities. The people need a cessation of hostilities. But we need to address some of the underlying issues related to the blockade and, of course, to Israel's security concerns. But the people of Gaza are the ones that have suffered here. They've been suffering for now - they're in the eighth year of blockade. That question needs to be addressed as part of ongoing discussions about the future of Gaza, or we're just going to be referring to this as the third war instead of referring to it as the last war.

CORNISH: Robert Turner, can you give us a sense of what you're looking at when you've stepped outside your office, what you're seeing on the streets today?

TURNER: Much busier on the streets today. You know, I've been traveling throughout Gaza as frequently as possible over the last four weeks. Every time you go out, there's more destruction. But a least now there's people on the streets. I mean, maybe this is a bit sad, but to have seen how the people have adapted to the conflict - in the first 10 days when I was out, the streets were virtually empty. Over time, people adapted. They started coming out in larger numbers. A few more shops opened. But, I mean, people just get used to this constant bombardment. But that's their third war, and they've lived their entire life under blockade. So you know, what it looks like on the streets today can't be what it looks like on the streets in another six months or another year. The people can't go back to the way it was.

CORNISH: That's Robert Turner. He's director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TURNER: You're welcome. Thank you.

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