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With eyes on Rafah, Israel renews attacks elsewhere to prevent Hamas from regrouping


All eyes have been on Rafah, Gaza's southern city, where the U.S. and the United Nations have been pressuring the Israeli government to stop a planned major assault.


Meanwhile, Israel has expanded its attacks elsewhere, to central and northern areas of the Gaza Strip. It says it's trying to prevent Hamas from regrouping there. All of this is happening while today, Israel turns inward for its Memorial Day, which is more somber this year because of the war.

MARTIN: Joining us now from Tel Aviv to tell us more about all this is NPR's Lauren Frayer. Lauren, good morning.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: First, could you just tell us what is the situation right now in Rafah? We've been hearing for weeks about Israel threatening a major offensive there. Many will have heard that the Biden administration has been urging the Israelis to show restraint. What can you tell us about that? Has it gone ahead?

FRAYER: You know, it feels like semantics at this point. Rafah has been under air strikes for months. Now it's being hit with artillery from Israeli tanks that rolled in a week ago. Those tanks cut off the border crossing with Egypt, which is the main gateway for food and fuel coming into Gaza and injured people going out. Here's Monica Johnston. She's a nurse from Portland, Ore., who is one of the dozens of aid workers who are now trapped in Rafah since that border closed. She describes unsanitary conditions in the hospital where she is.

MONICA JOHNSTON: The flies are everywhere. They're in the OR; they're in the ICU. I really think they can predict death. It's - I don't know - just absolutely unbelievable here.

FRAYER: Last night, Israel did say it opened a crossing in the north of Gaza to trucks carrying flour in, but hunger and shortages persist, and now a third of Rafah is under evacuation orders. So we're seeing hundreds of thousands of displaced people now being displaced again.

MARTIN: And where can they go?

FRAYER: To other areas of Gaza that have already been destroyed and which may now also be under renewed attack. I spoke last night to Hind Khoudary. She's a freelance journalist who left Rafah and went to Deir al-Balah, which is in the central part of Gaza, and I asked her to describe what she sees around her.

HIND KHOUDARY: There's no empty areas where all is rubble, so they do not have, like, a small area to put up their tents. They are homeless. They do not know where to go.

FRAYER: While I was talking to her, she said she could hear explosions in the distance. There's been heavy fighting with airstrikes and with ground troops in Jabalia, in the north of Gaza, in Zeitoun, in central Gaza, and Gaza's health ministry says the death toll from all of these attacks since October 7 has now surpassed the 35,000 mark, and that's almost surely an underestimate.

MARTIN: Lauren, as I mentioned that you are in Israel. It's Memorial Day there today. What does the state commemorate, and what is the mood there?

FRAYER: Yeah. Today is probably the most somber day of the year in Israel. It's dedicated to fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. This is a country where most people do serve in the military, and it's also a country that's been attacked by its neighbors many times since its founding. Here's what it sounded like at sundown last night and again, mid-morning today.


FRAYER: So this siren wails, traffic stops. People literally get out of their cars and stand at attention on the highway. This happens annually, but the focus this year is on memorials for October 7 victims and soldiers killed in the war. And when memorials end at sundown tonight, the mood shifts - most years, at least - and it flips into celebrations for Israel's Independence Day, which starts tonight. And that contrast is intentional. It's meant to link the wars that Israel has fought and the casualties it's suffered with the idea of the very survival of Israel as a state.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in Tel Aviv. Lauren, thank you so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. 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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.