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Rafah's main hospital has shut down, people try to flee as Israel launches an attack


Israeli forces ordered thousands more people in southern Gaza to leave. That's ahead of an expected push by troops deeper into Rafah, where about 1.4 million people, half of them children, according to the U.N., had been sheltering. NPR correspondent Aya Batrawy in Tel Aviv joins us now. Hi, Aya.


RASCOE: So let's start with the Israeli military operation in Rafah right now. What can you tell us?

BATRAWY: So the Israeli military is calling this a, quote, "precise operation against Hamas." That's the group that carried out the October 7 attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people there, according to Israeli authorities. Now, the military says Hamas has a few remaining battalions in Rafah, and that the ground assault there, which began on Monday with troops taking control of the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, has effectively shut down this border, so no one can get in or out of Gaza. Now, the military says they've found tunnels and weapons in this area, and they emphasize that their evacuation orders for civilians here are temporary. But on the ground, people across the Gaza strip say there's nowhere safe for them to flee to. Israel airstrikes are targeting areas in Rafah not under evacuation orders where families are sheltering still. The health ministry in Gaza says at least 18 people have been killed in Rafah today already, including several children.

RASCOE: Is this the military operation the Biden administration had warned Israel against carrying out without a clear plan to move civilians into areas with basic services and shelter?

BATRAWY: As I mentioned, you know, the Israeli military says its operation in Rafah is limited in scope and focus. But on the ground, this assault has sent shock waves through the entire area of Rafah. Its main hospital and morgue shut down this week because they fell in areas the military told people to evacuate from. The World Food Program says it can no longer access its main warehouse there. You know, people also expect the Israeli assault on Rafah will gradually expand. The U.N. and Israeli military estimate already 300,000 people have left Rafah this week. Have a listen to Rafeek Elmadhoun. He's the program manager for Rebuilding Alliance. It's an aid organization that works with the World Food Program serving hot meals in Gaza.

RAFEEK ELMADHOUN: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says they've had to almost double the amount of meals being served daily this week because of the volume of people fleeing Rafah to other parts of Gaza and that they're planning for even more. And so what he's saying is that these aid workers who are also themselves racing to set up new kitchens in medical field clinics outside Rafah are doing this while they are setting up tents for themselves and their families.

RASCOE: It's also been a week since any medical aid or food trucks have entered Gaza through its main crossing in the south. Is any aid expected to enter soon?

BATRAWY: Yeah. I mean, it's been a whole week since aid trucks have gotten in with food or medical supplies, as you've said. Now, I spoke with Scott Anderson in Rafah. He oversees UNRWA in Gaza. That's the main U.N. agency overseeing aid there. He says there are no plans for aid trucks to get into Gaza from its main crossings in the south. He says there was one transfer of fuel through the Israeli-Gaza Kerem Shalom border on Friday. But he says there's a main difference between that crossing being open and being functional.

SCOTT ANDERSON: And right now, it's not functioning as we would all like. Fuel is required for everything that we do in Gaza.

BATRAWY: He says there are plans for Israel to transfer possibly more fuel into Gaza today, just enough to keep hospital generators and telecoms running. But as people flee Rafah for areas in central Gaza, those areas are also being targeted by Israel airstrikes. Civil defense crews say they cannot reach people under the rubble right now because of how heavy the bombardment has been in some of these middle areas. They are receiving calls from families trapped under the rubble still alive. The situation is similar in the north of Gaza, where Israel's military issued new evacuation orders yesterday as well. The military says Hamas has regrouped there. So effectively, the U.N. says most of Gaza now is under some kind of evacuation order. And the Gaza Health Ministry says the Palestinian death toll in Gaza has surpassed 35,000 people killed in this war.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy in Tel Aviv. Aya, thank you so much.

BATRAWY: Thank you, Ayesha. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.