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Gaza food crisis is nothing like anything chef José Andrés had seen before

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: For the last several years, renowned chef Jose Andres has run toward the screams. After floods, earthquakes, in the middle of wars - he's often among the first to show up, scrambling to feed people through the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit food aid organization he founded some years ago. Last year, Andres was on the frontlines in Ukraine. This year, it's Gaza - a conflict zone, he says, is unlike any other he's seen.

JOSE ANDRES: In Ukraine, you always can retreat to the safety of the areas that is not really an active frontline. The issue in Gaza is the Palestinian people - they don't have anywhere else to go. They don't have anywhere else to retreat. They cannot run any further.

FADEL: As the founder of World Central Kitchen - I mean, it's an organization that is about feeding people living through the worst days of their lives. What do you think about this war strategy of cutting Gaza off from food and water for weeks on end - I mean, before the aid trucks were even allowed in - and now, at this point, many aid organizations saying, this is not enough?

ANDRES: So what I will say that, in situations like this, the best is that everybody recognizes that food and water is a universal right. The best is that no children, no woman, nobody should be going through the pains of war, that nobody should be shooting civilians. And what I mean, nobody, is everybody. We need to remember how this latest issue began. This was a terrorist attack by Hamas into the southern part of Israel. We cannot forget that. We cannot use finger pointing at the other side without taking our own responsibility for our own actions and doings. Many Palestinians I've been able to speak to, and many tell me, I don't have an issue with the Israeli people. I don't have an issue with these people. I only want the best for my family, for my children, to have a future better than mine. That's why I always say, we need to believe in longer tables. What is good for me must be good for others.

FADEL: People in Gaza - beyond the incredible danger of the conflict, they've been cut off from food, water, fuel and electricity for many weeks. That has led to people starving. A new U.N. report says half a million people are now starving in Gaza. You know, one of the things the Israeli government will say that cutting off basic essentials was part of making sure it didn't fall into the hands of the wrong people - in this case, Hamas. And their interception of these essentials is what keeps Hamas going. Based on what you saw, were these basic essentials getting to where they needed to go?

ANDRES: By my understanding, for what I saw in the three days I was there, by all the information I have by the team members - not only World Central Kitchen, by other organizations - I will say that the very big majority of all these goods are going to the people. In Ukraine, we had the situation that we had to be delivering some of the aid of World Central Kitchen to a church that then the priest was going to deliver to the Russian troops. We did that because in exchange they liberated 17 Ukrainians that were under Russian command. And they liberated them in exchange of the food. And I do believe that the vast majority, 98% of the people in Palestine, are people that want peace, are people that don't want mayhem, are people that are trying to provide for their own. So I will say that this is what humanitarian organizations should be concentrated and that everybody should be allowing - we need to be feeding, bringing water, food and medicines to everybody in need and let the people doing war handling that on their own. I'm not going to get in the politics if it's the right or the wrong thing to do. What we cannot be doing is starving or killing many only because we are trying to oppress the few.

FADEL: Going into Gaza, though, is incredibly dangerous. More than 100 U.N. workers have been killed since the start of this, more than any other time since the U.N. has been recording the killing of their aid workers. There are strikes across the Palestinian enclave, ground operations - the vast majority of the more than 20,000 people killed have been women and children. Can World Central Kitchen actually work safely in Gaza?

ANDRES: Well, listen, obviously these numbers are staggering. Besides - behind those numbers are the names and the faces and the families...

FADEL: Yeah.

ANDRES: ...On every one of those people. World Central Kitchen - we lost six volunteers of World Central Kitchen in Ukraine. As a cook, as a chef, when I founded this organization, I never expected that this will happen. And I almost wanted to pull World Central Kitchen immediately out of Ukraine. But the locals told me, Jose, you cannot leave. We need you. We need your organization.

FADEL: I have to ask about when we were doing research for this interview. A recent report from Bloomberg that says that World Central Kitchen - that you look the other way when it comes to concerns around the safety of World Central Kitchen staff, volunteers, when deploying to these conflict and disaster zones. And I just want to give you the opportunity to talk about that report.

ANDRES: Well, thank you for asking for this. Listen, we don't push anybody to go - only goes who wants to go. And when you go to a hurricane, there are electric cables down. We go to war zones that sometimes a missile or - comes down, or - I think with humanitarian aid, there are risks. Obviously, it's people that maybe they don't feel safe doing this job, but then they shouldn't be in these kind of humanitarian situations. But from there to say that Jose Andres puts people in danger - I never be able to tell anybody to do what I'm not willing to do on my own.

FADEL: On Gaza, for my final question, if the rate of this aid remains the same, the bottlenecks, what do you think will happen for the 2.3 million people - Palestinians in Gaza - the vast majority, 85%, displaced - what happens to them if it doesn't get in faster?

ANDRES: Let's hope the hostilities end tomorrow - the cease-fire or a total temporary peace is achieved. But still, the need will be huge for weeks until we stabilize the entire situation with food, water and medicines, remembering that we have many hospitals - that they are very few remaining.

FADEL: The majority.

ANDRES: They are in very difficult conditions, so more is more right now.

FADEL: That's chef Jose Andres. He just returned from Gaza where his organization is providing aid. Thank you for speaking with us.

ANDRES: Thank you for having me. 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.

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