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Israel prepares for Rafah offensive as U.S. plans to build new Gaza port

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The city of Rafah is in southern Gaza, near the border with Egypt. Most Palestinians in Gaza are displaced there with nowhere left to flee. Israel may soon launch an offensive against the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah, and so there are concerns for the more than 1 million people still sheltering there. Our reporters are following the latest from Dubai. We're joined by NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy and, from Washington, NPR defense correspondent Tom Bowman. Hello to both of you.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Aya, let's start with you. What indications are there that Israel is indeed preparing for an offensive?

BATRAWY: Well, let's start with satellite images that NPR has looked at. NPR has been able to identify through these satellite images four new tent encampments that have been built to the north of Rafah. Now, two of those large tent encampments were built just last week. These are large white tents, and they could be used to house displaced Palestinians in Rafah now. Israel's military declined to comment when we asked them about these, but another indication, Ailsa, is that two reserve brigades were mobilized this week for Gaza. Now, Israeli media reports say this increases the number of soldiers in Gaza for the planned assault on Rafah.

We've also seen increased pressure on Rafah through airstrikes almost daily, and they have mostly killed women and children, according to morgue records we have seen. Now, Israel's leadership hasn't announced a timeframe for an attack on Rafah, but Egyptian intelligence officials have told NPR that their Israeli counterparts have indicated to them areas in Rafah they believe have tunnels and militant hideouts and that could be targeted. And there are reports that an Israeli assault on Rafah could be carried out in phases.

CHANG: Well, Tom, the U.S. has told Israel that they want to see a clear plan for evacuating Palestinian civilians before any operation is launched, right? Has the U.S. military actually received any such plans?

BOWMAN: You know, Ailsa, they have not, and it's a real concern among U.S. officials that the Israelis have not done enough to provide aid for those in Gaza. One administration official called the situation dire - and, again, more than a million people in the Rafah area. One humanitarian official I spoke with said there's no indication that Israel has even set aside enough tents for those who are expected to be removed from the firing zone. Now, Israel also, Ailsa, has not provided a detailed military plan for the expected Rafah operation, only kind of a broad brush of what they'll do. That's also concerning U.S. officials, and it's important to note that even from the beginning of the Gaza war back in October, the Israelis have shared very little information.

CHANG: Right. But, Aya, I mean, Rafah's border crossing with Egypt has been like a lifeline for Palestinians, right? And so what are aid organizations and Palestinians saying about a possible assault on the city?

BATRAWY: So we have a producer, Anas Baba, in Rafah among the displaced people, and he went out speaking to others about sort of what they feel. And time and again, he was just hearing people say, we're tired. We're exhausted. We've been displaced more than once. Some said they would leave if they were told exactly where to go. Others say there's no safe place in Gaza. Thousands of people have been killed in areas they were told to evacuate to, so there's no guarantee there would be this clean evacuation of people when told to leave.

Also, you know, there are a lot of people who are physically unable to pick up and move again. I mean, we spoke to a man this week in Rafah who said his wife is breastfeeding their baby, and he doesn't want to throw her in a tent with 10 to 12 other people - 'cause these white tents we saw on satellite images can take up to 12 people. You know, people want their privacy as much as possible. They say, we want to hold on to our dignity. There's also other people who say they're severely wounded, and they cannot just up and leave. You know, there are people who have suffered amputations and severe injuries.

Aid groups are also drawing up contingency plans. You know, big UN agencies and aid organizations there say they would try to keep staff in Rafah to serve the people that stay behind as long as possible. But one thing we keep hearing is, like, an attack on Rafah would bring operations to a halt or lead to a total collapse of a lot of those efforts. And also, just a reminder - this week the head of the World Food Program, the director, again repeated that, you know, there are people that are hungry, starving, suffering from malnutrition. And famine remains imminent in Gaza.

CHANG: Well, Tom, we know the U.S. has been doing these airdrops to get food to northern Gaza. What is the latest with its efforts to try and get more aid in?

BOWMAN: Well, besides urging the Israelis to let more aid trucks in at other crossing points, the U.S. is constructing this floating pier off northern Gaza that is expected to be up and running by roughly the first week of May. Ships will offload aid onto this pier, and then trucks will move along a causeway to the beach. So they hope to have as many as 150 trucks per day. Right now at the existing land crossings, they say as many as 220 aid trucks are getting in each day. But, Ailsa, before the war started, roughly 500 trucks were getting in each day.

CHANG: Wow. So this is a massive drop.

BOWMAN: Right. But this floating pier and this causeway also faces challenges. This week there was a mortar attack at the marshaling area for the aid that will be coming in from the pier. There was only minor damage but obviously a huge concern going forward. Another concern is what happens if large numbers of people crowd the entry point for the trucks. The Israel Defense Forces will provide security, but, you know, massive crowds could potentially slow down the process. And just today, Ailsa, Joint Chiefs Chairman General C. Q. Brown said he's spoken with both the Israel Defense Forces and aid groups about security, adding that the IDF will create a kind of a buffer zone or bubble to protect those aid trucks as they proceed.

CHANG: Well, meanwhile, Egypt, which borders Rafah, has said that an attack there would lead to massacres. That is a direct quote. Do we have a sense, Aya, of what Egypt is planning to do if there is an attack?

BATRAWY: Egypt doesn't have very many good options. If they were to open the border and allow a flood of Palestinians in, they fear - Egyptian officials say they fear that they would never be allowed to return back to Gaza, back to their homes. So what they're doing is they're doubling down on their mediation efforts for a cease-fire. There could be new proposals on the table to try and get Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire. But for weeks now, neither side has been able to agree on even the basic terms of a truce that could free hostages and really bring this war to an end and stave off an assault on Rafah.

CHANG: That is NPR's Aya Batrawy and Tom Bowman. Thank you both so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

BATRAWY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIPPIE SABOTAGE SONG, "OM") 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.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.