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Many Palestinians have fled Rafah, but many others have nowhere to go

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

More than 75% of the Gaza strip is now under Israel evacuation orders, including parts of the southern city of Rafah. That is according to the U.N. We are joined now by NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy in Dubai. Hi, there.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hey.

SUMMERS: So Aya, we know that Rafah is where more than half of Gaza's population has been sheltering and that it's where Israel launched a ground operation on Monday. The military says that, at this stage, troops are not advancing towards the main city and that they're focused on the eastern part of Rafah. But with Israeli tanks now in parts of Rafah, what has the impact been there?

BATRAWY: Well, Rafah is a really small area bordering Egypt, but it's become home to more than 1.4 million displaced people, half of whom are children. So this military offensive has jolted and terrified people there. They're really concerned that this operation is just beginning and will expand. Have a listen to Israeli government spokesman Avi Hyman explaining Israel's military goals in Rafah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVI HYMAN: This is the beginning of our mission to take out the last four Hamas brigades in Rafah. You should be in no doubt about that whatsoever.

SUMMERS: Aya, you spoke today with aid workers in Rafah. Let's have a listening to your reporting with NPR producer Anas Baba in Gaza about what's happening on the ground there. And I'll warn listeners here that this report includes the sound of gunfire as well as graphic scenes of violence.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Since the October 7 attack on Israel, people in Gaza have had to pick up and move again and again and again.

FATIMA BALAH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: From the beach road to the schools, to Al-Shifa Hospital, to Al-Shawwa, to Rafah, Fatima Balah rattles off the places she's been forced to flee. "We've seen nothing but suffering," says the elderly woman, who walks with a cane.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: On Monday, she was among the more than 100,000 people in eastern Rafah Israel told to leave. Children piled onto donkey carts and in cars stacked high with mattresses. But most people had to walk through streets overflowing with sewage and garbage as they dragged the luggage and pushed the wounded in wheelchairs. Israel sent messages like this to get people moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Israel also published a grid-like map with the numbered blocks of where people should leave on social media and in flyers dropped from the sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: "For your safety, the Israeli military orders you to evacuate immediately to the expanded humanitarian area in Al-Mawasi," the message says.

But it warns people not to head back too far north, where Israeli forces have shot people trying to reach Gaza City. Less than 24 hours later, Israeli tanks rolled into Rafah.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: In one viral video, a tank is seen rolling over an I love Gaza sign near the Rafah crossing with Egypt.

The military says troops killed Hamas gunmen in that area and found tunnel shafts. The operation, however, also shut down the Rafah border - the main artery for fuel and aid and anyone entering or leaving Gaza. Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian office.

JENS LAERKE: If no fuel comes in for a prolonged period of time, it would be a very effective way of putting the humanitarian operation in its grave.

BATRAWY: Hisham Mhanna is in Rafah with the International Committee of the Red Cross. He says severely wounded and chronically ill people are trapped, and the health system has collapsed.

HISHAM MHANNA: This is why a significant military operation in Rafah can be disastrous and would lead to absolute carnage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUNNING)

BATRAWY: The U.N. estimates that tens of thousands fled the city on Tuesday. Some headed to the scorching sandy area of Al-Mawasi, others to central Gaza. Both areas have been bombed. Dr. James Smith, an emergency doctor in Rafah, says not everyone can leave the city, particularly those who are ill or wounded, but people who stay will struggle to find treatment.

JAMES SMITH: The European Gaza Hospital, which is to the northeast of Rafah, is completely overwhelmed already. Several of the smaller hospitals in Rafah have already started to preemptively evacuate patients because they're fearful of what the Israeli military might do in or around those health facilities.

BATRAWY: Rafah's main hospital was closed. It's in the red zone where people were told to leave. Doctors Without Borders emergency coordinator in Gaza, Sylvain Groulx, says another hospital in Rafah is already moving its incubators and equipment to Nasser Hospital in nearby Khan Younis, which they're trying to salvage after an Israeli raid destroyed it. As for Khan Younis...

SYLVAIN GROULX: The city has been completely destroyed. It looks like World War II. And I've never seen this level of damage, even in places like Mosul or Aleppo.

BATRAWY: Although the city is more devastated than any he's seen in Iraq and Syria, he says...

GROULX: This offensive is moving very, very quickly. Time is not on our side.

BATRAWY: Just as people were leaving Rafah this week, Israeli airstrikes killed at least 13 members of the al-Dirby family sheltering in a home in an area not under evacuation orders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPER SLIDING)

BATRAWY: The body bags are baking in the heat under the sun. Rafah's key morgue isn't accessible. It's part of the main hospital in the red zone. Amal al-Dirby, a matriarch in the family, names off the men, women and children lying in those body bags or still under the rubble.

AMAL AL-DIRBY: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: "They were innocent kids - just kids," she says.

AL-DIRBY: (Non-English language spoken, crying).

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELS DIGGING)

BATRAWY: At the site of the airstrike, rescue workers comb through the rubble using only shovels.

MOHAMMAD AL-HUMS: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Civil defense worker Mohammad al-Hums is helping, but he says, "should I console myself or others?"

He says, only yesterday, his uncle, his uncle's wife and their three children were killed in an Israeli airstrike. But, he adds, there's no time to grieve.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai with reporting from NPR's Anas Baba in Rafah. 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.