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Egypt builds a buffer zone in anticipation of a Palestinian refugee spillover

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More than half of Gaza's population has sought shelter in the southern region of Rafah, across the border from Egypt.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Israel is warning of an impending ground invasion in that area if hostages aren't freed by Hamas. And the Biden administration is warning Israel not to advance without first ensuring the more than 1 million people sheltering there have an opportunity to seek safety somewhere else.

FADEL: NPR's Aya Batrawy is following all of this and joins us now from Dubai. Good morning, Aya.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with Rafah. What's the situation there for people?

BATRAWY: Well, as you note, at least a million people have fled their homes and have sought shelter in Rafah, many of them living in makeshift tents after being pushed from their homes by Israeli ground operations in other areas like the north. And there was hope that Rafah would be a safe zone, but it's not. There is no safe place in Gaza for civilians, and people are growing desperate.

The number of aid trucks entering Gaza has fluctuated dramatically in recent days from one day to the next. Some days, a hundred trucks go in, on other days just a fraction of that. And now there's growing concern about hunger, disease and hospitals collapsing. You know, already, more than 29,000 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, have been killed by direct violence in this war, according to the health ministry there, a war that began October 7 when Hamas attacked Israel. And in that attack, they took 240 hostages and 1,200 people were killed, according to Israeli officials.

FADEL: Yeah, and some of those hostages have been released and some still remain. Israel has carried out airstrikes on Rafah. What do we know about their impact?

BATRAWY: Israel says Hamas battalions are active in Rafah, but civilians have also suffered there. I mean, there are so many stories of loss and trauma, and here's one from Sunday. Around two dozen people were sheltering in a home in Rafah when an airstrike hit the house. Just five people survived. Now, among those killed, Leila, in that airstrike were a newlywed couple. They'd been engaged for about a year and decided to go ahead and tie the knot on Thursday. NPR's producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, spoke to the bride's father, Abdulsalam Deeb (ph), about his daughter Mariam Deeb (ph). And here's what he said.

ABDULSALAM DEEB: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says his daughter had only been married for two days when she and her husband were killed, and that they didn't even get a chance to experience life and see the world. He says, I wish I could say goodbye to her, kiss her and hug her. Her body is still under the rubble.

FADEL: Wow. It's really hard to hear the helplessness of all these families and stories like this. Now, of course, the Biden administration continues to back Israel's war in Gaza against Hamas, providing weapons and aid to Israel's military. But the president has also cautioned Israel against rushing into a ground invasion of Rafah. What do we know, though, about Israel's plans?

BATRAWY: Well, Israel's war cabinet has been vague about Rafah, just as they've been unclear about where this war is headed and what the future of Gaza is going to look like. Now, there has been a push by mediators to get a truce in place, preferably before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in about three weeks. But over the weekend, a member of Israel's war cabinet said that if hostages aren't freed by Ramadan, fighting would continue everywhere in Gaza, including in Rafah.

FADEL: Egypt has expressed real concern about the possibility that a ground invasion of Rafah would push Palestinians across the border into its territory. How's that affecting relations between Egypt and Israel?

BATRAWY: Relations are really tense. I mean, there haven't been any direct calls between Egypt's president and Israel's prime minister. But Egypt is still trying to get Hamas and Israel to agree to a cease-fire of some kind. Now, as a precaution, Egyptian security officials tell NPR Egypt is constructing a walled-off security zone that could take up to 150,000 Palestinians on its side of the border in case people do break through and breach Egypt's border. Egypt is very concerned that any displacement of Palestinians into Egypt would be permanent and that it would drag Egypt into the war.

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

BATRAWY: Thank you, 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
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.
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