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Even before a planned Israeli ground offensive, airstrikes have made Rafah unsafe


Israel seems determined to launch a ground offensive in Rafah. That's the city in Southern Gaza where hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge. The U.S. says first, it wants to see a credible plan to move those civilians out of harm's way, but as NPR's Aya Batrawy and Anas Baba report, almost daily airstrikes have already made Rafah unsafe, and this is where I need to let you know that this report includes graphic descriptions of violence.


AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: At a morgue in Rafah Saturday, Ahmed Barhoum (ph) cradles 5-year-old Alaa (ph). He gently tugs her shirt down as it inches up her back. He rocks her back and forth, wailing, Lulu (ph), her nickname.


BATRAWY: Her black hair is still styled down the middle with rubber bands. She's limp and lifeless. Alaa and her 26-year-old mother were among nine people killed in that airstrike in Rafah, all except one women and children.

BARHOUM: (Speaking non-English language)

BATRAWY: As he holds his daughter for the last time, Barhoum blasts Israel's army. He uses the words of Israel's defense minister, who said, after the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas, that Israel was fighting human animals. Barhoum says it's Israel's army that are beasts, mauling our children and women. The morgue at the hospital fills up again the following day. This time, the bodies of 16 children, six women and two men are covered in body bags, the aftermath of airstrikes on two homes in Rafah.

Yousef Ibrahim (ph) is a native of Rafah, with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. He compiles data from hospitals and has detailed records of the recent airstrikes. He says that since March 21, 224 people have been killed in airstrikes in Rafah, three-quarters of them women and children. Ibrahim says the uptick in air strikes over the past month is putting Rafah on a knife's edge. The U.N. says more than a million displaced Palestinians are in Rafah, with nowhere left to flee.

YOUSEF IBRAHIM: (Through interpreter) We're in flux, anticipating and waiting out these recent Israeli threats. There's a plan to carry out an extensive operation in Rafah. While we wait, airstrikes continue, the targeting of homes continues, the killing continues.

BATRAWY: Israel blames Hamas for Gaza's high civilian death toll, accusing militants of hiding among the population. NPR has reached out to the military with the coordinates of some of the homes recently bombed in Rafah, to ask why they were targeted. The military has not responded to multiple requests for comment. Israel last week called up two reserve brigades, and says an undisclosed date has been set for an assault on Rafah.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking non-English language)

BATRAWY: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, Israel will increase the military and political pressure on Hamas in the coming days. He says this is the only way to free Israeli hostages, and vows Israel will deliver additional and painful blows. For Saqer Abd el-Aal (ph), those blows have already come. On Sunday, he stood over the bodies of his wife and his six children killed in an airstrike in Rafah.

SAGER ABD EL-AAL: (Speaking non-English language).

BATRAWY: The oldest child was just 10 years old, he says, the youngest just a year. El-Aal points to their bodies and says, open the body bags and see their faces. The family says there are no militants here. Outside a makeshift hospital in Rafah, doctors rush to save a baby.

The mother, 28-year-old Sabreen Ramadan (ph), was killed in one of Saturday's airstrikes. The father and the couple's 3-year-old daughter have also been killed. Doctors took the baby out, two months premature. The baby, born in an airstrike and already orphaned, is given oxygen.


BATRAWY: An ambulance rushes the baby to a nearby hospital for an incubator. Israeli drones buzz overhead. Aya Batrawy, NPR News Dubai, with reporting by Anas Baba in Rafah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

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.
Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]