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Israeli troops have taken over a Gaza hospital as potential operation in Rafah looms

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Israeli troops have taken over a main hospital in southern Gaza, looking for Hamas fighters and the remains of Israeli hostages - this as a potential Israeli operation looms in the most crowded part of Gaza. Let's get the latest from NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. And, Daniel, start with just what we know about what the situation is at this hospital in southern Gaza.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Yeah. This is the Nasser Medical Complex in the city of Khan Younis. Israeli troops have taken over that hospital in the last few days. It's a hospital that NPR's producer Anas Baba visited just two months ago. He saw families crowding the hospital grounds there. They were sheltering there. And now Gaza health officials are saying that Israeli troops have evacuated many patients and staff to a building on the grounds that did not have proper medical equipment. They say that hospital generators stopped functioning. Five ICU patients, they claim, have died because their oxygen ran out. And Doctors Without Borders says the hospital was shelled and that people inside were killed and wounded.

NPR's producer Abu Bakr Bashir happened to speak with an ambulance crew member today from Gaza's health ministry. He's been in touch with his colleagues at the hospital, who said Israeli bulldozers had razed an area of the hospital complex. He said a main sewage line had been hit and sewage had flooded inside the hospital. He also said babies had been relocated to a building that didn't have incubators. And our producer was speaking to this ambulance crew member, Ahmed Al Astal, as he was driving in an ambulance in the city of Khan Younis. And suddenly, on the phone, they had to turn around. And here's what it sounded like.

AHMED AL ASTAL: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: So there, he's telling his colleague, "go back. Go back. Go back. The army is there. There are injured people there."

KELLY: Ah, it sounds just absolutely chaotic. Tell me more about the why. Why does Israel say it needs to take over this hospital?

ESTRIN: Well, Israel's army says it is looking for Hamas operatives in the hospital and looking for the bodies of Israeli hostages that might be held there. Israel says it has not yet found any remains of hostages. It says hostages had been held there in the past. Israel also says it's found medicines with the hostages' names on them. Now, Israel says it is not forcing people to leave this hospital. It says it's delivered fuel and a new generator to the hospital so that it can continue providing medical care. I was at a briefing today with Israel's Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, who spoke about this operation at the hospital. He said more than 7,000 Palestinians have left the hospital grounds. He says troops have arrested about 70 militants in the hospital, including a few dozen he said participated in Hamas' October 7 attack on Israel. But, Mary Louise, this is a pattern. We see Israel taking over main hospitals as troops sweep from north to south Gaza. Israel says Hamas, you know, bases itself in hospitals.

KELLY: Daniel, just briefly update us on where things stand with Israel's plans to send troops into Rafah. That is, of course, where more than half of the people in Gaza are sheltering. What's the update on how likely it is, when it would happen?

ESTRIN: President Biden today said he doesn't expect a major operation there while there are talks ongoing for a temporary cease-fire and a potential deal to release Hamas' hostages. But it might happen eventually. Israel's defense minister today told us that Israel is thoroughly planning this operation there. And Egypt is worried. A security official there told us that Egypt is building a buffer zone to contain a potential influx of Palestinians if they burst through the border.

KELLY: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. 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.

Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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