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Israeli troops take control of the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's review the last couple of days as people have experienced them in southern Gaza. Israel is fighting Hamas there and has threatened to move on Rafah, a city choked with refugees. Yesterday, Israeli forces warned civilians to flee one part of the city, and our producer Anas Baba described the chaos.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: We can see that all over the city of Rafah at the moment is being totally a mess - cars everywhere, shouting everywhere. People are trying to collect whatever they can.

INSKEEP: So that was one moment. A short time later, Hamas claimed to have accepted a cease-fire, and people celebrated. Soon after that, Israel said, no, Hamas had not accepted the same terms that Israel had in mind. Now, Israelis say they are still open to negotiating, but their troops have taken control of a border crossing at Rafah. Jan Egeland is Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has many people working in Gaza, and he's on the line. Welcome back to the program.

JAN EGELAND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from your colleagues?

EGELAND: What I hear from my colleagues is fear, desperation, uncertainty, hope yesterday, now real, real regret that there isn't the cease-fire that we were all hoping for, and then the existential questions - should I - these are my Palestinian colleagues - should I take my family and flee for the third, fourth or fifth time, and to where? Because, I mean, Kerem, the Khan Younis area, is really looking like Stalingrad after the Second World War. There is ruins only there, and Al Mawasi, which is the other area Israel says go to, is overcrowded as it is.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that the places that would be places of refuge are not livable. That is your understanding of the situation on the ground.

EGELAND: Yeah - not for a million people because, I mean, Rafah is like no other place on Earth. It is the largest cluster of refugee camps on Earth. And if there is a war machine plowing through that now, it would either be a bloodbath or people fleeing to, yes, unlivable areas.

INSKEEP: What is the significance of Israel claiming to have taken control of the border crossing at Rafah? I know that Israel already had a lot to say about what passed through that border crossing or what didn't...

EGELAND: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...But now they say they've got it in their control fully.

EGELAND: It means that the last two openings have been sealed. Kerem Shalom in - from Israel and Rafah from Egypt has been sealed for humanitarian relief to a population that is experiencing hunger, but also no evacuation for the wounded, for the sick, for those who were queuing up to escape and get some treatment. It adds to the desperation, of course.

INSKEEP: To what extent do you see the operations around Rafah, the Israeli threats to Rafah, the Hamas responses, as part of a larger negotiation? They're trying to negotiate a cease-fire, or at least they're involved in negotiating a cease-fire. The Israelis would like to get hostages back. Hamas has offered different terms than Israel seems to have offered regarding returning the hostages. To what extent is all of this about negotiating a wider end to, or at least pause in, the conflict?

EGELAND: It could indeed be a very cynical chess play where men - grown men - sit in very comfortable offices. They are military and political leaders on both sides, and they're willing to fight to the last woman and child. I mean, it's obscene, really. A cease-fire could have been reached long ago that would have included the release of the hostages and the release of Palestinian prisoners, many of them detained with no law, no trial, and then we could have had the start of a political process that both Israel and Palestinian deserve. They both deserve to live in peace with each other, and the United States has to push even much harder for this. The United States is giving, after all, the tools for the military campaign.

INSKEEP: Do you think that the hostages - I mean, do your people think the hostages may be somewhere in Rafah - the remaining ones?

EGELAND: We don't know. I mean, we don't see Hamas there at all. They are underground. And hopefully the hostages are alive and can be released soon.

INSKEEP: Jan Egeland is Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Thanks for the update, sir. I really appreciate it.

EGELAND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Of course, we have a lot of coverage of the Israel-Hamas war and related issues. And to find differing views and perspectives, you can go to npr.org/mideast. 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.