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Israel's war and security cabinets continue planning for military operation in Rafah


Israel's war and security cabinets are meeting today to discuss plans for a possible military operation in southern Gaza. That's where more than half of Gaza's population is sheltering, and it's a key entry point for humanitarian aid from Egypt. To discuss Israel's plans for Rafah, we're joined now by NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy, who's following this closely from Dubai. Good morning, Aya.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what do we know about these discussions and Israel's plans?

BATRAWY: So for months now, Israeli leaders have been saying the military must take Rafah in order to crush Hamas and have control over all of Gaza's territory. And they believe there could be Israeli hostages there. Now, one indication Israel could already be mobilizing is the military activated two reserve brigades for deployment in Gaza yesterday. And Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has already approved the military's plan for an assault on the city. But also, satellite images show new tent encampments have been built in Gaza, some as recently as last week. NPR's Geoffrey Brumfiel identified at least four of those to the north of Rafah. Now, this could indicate preparations to evacuate civilians. These are large white tents in desolated areas at the moment, with really no infrastructure around them.

Now, another development is we've seen Israel ramping up pressure on Rafah through near-daily airstrikes over the past four to five weeks, including just this past weekend. Rafah holds more than a million displaced people. And hospital records there show most of those killed by these airstrikes have been women and children. And here I should note that NPR has provided the coordinates of some of these homes to Israel's military to ask why they were targeted, and we have not received a response.

FADEL: So all of what you describe points to something that could be underway. But, Aya, is there a timeline for this operation that we know of?

BATRAWY: Leila, Israel has not announced a timeline for any of this, but it is presenting plans to the U.S. and to Egypt. Egyptian security officials told NPR that Israeli intelligence have identified areas in Rafah they want to target near Egypt's border with Gaza, and there have been reports that suggests Israel would carry out its plan in Rafah in phases. Now, Egypt says it rejects any operation in Rafah. They are concerned about border security and forced mass displacement of Palestinians into Egyptian territory. But of course, crucially, the Biden administration also says they're still in discussions with the Israelis about their plans for Rafah, and they haven't greenlit an operation there, they say. And they want to see a clear plan that moves civilians out of harm's way and into areas where aid can actually reach them.

FADEL: Well, let's talk about the civilians. I mean, we mentioned more than half of Gaza is in this area, so what are people in Rafah thinking right now? And where will they go if this operation happens?

BATRAWY: So there's obviously anxiety and uncertainty and just desperation over what to do. You know, families are sitting, trying to weigh the risks of whether to stay or to go somewhere else. And many of them have already moved more than once over the course of the, basically, past seven months of this war. And there are also thousands of displaced people who've been killed in areas they were told to evacuate to, so there's no guarantee that people in Rafah would leave if they were told to or that some even physically can at this point.

Now, NPR's producer, Anas Baba, in Gaza spoke this week with people in Rafah about this, and one of the people we spoke to is a guy named Hadi el-Sayid (ph). He's a father from Gaza City now in Rafah. He says he'd move if, you know, Israeli leaflets told him where to go. But he says, don't toss us in the desert and just tell us to figure out how to survive out there.

HADI EL-SAYID: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: I mean, he says, like, we're slowly dying here. And where are we supposed to go? There's no safety anywhere. He says, look, we don't want aid. We don't want a cease-fire. We want this war to end, and we want to go back to our homes. But, Leila, you know, most homes in Gaza have been destroyed. And the military is not allowing people like him to return to Gaza City. So with nowhere for people to go, people in Rafah say they're worried about what's still to come.

FADEL: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai. Thank you, Aya.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Leila. 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.