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Israeli PM plans for ground invasion of Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the Israeli military to prepare to evacuate the city of Rafah. It's the latest move indicating Israel may soon move ground forces into the very southern end of Gaza. The city's crowded with hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the fighting elsewhere in the territory. NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi joins us now from Tel Aviv. Hadeel, thanks for being with us.

HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: What more do we know about this possible ground invasion?

AL-SHALCHI: Yeah. So yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu's office said that it was impossible to get rid of Hamas without sending ground troops into Rafah. There are about 1.5 million Palestinians crammed in Rafah at the moment, and aid agencies are warning that the existing humanitarian crisis could get even worse. Netanyahu asked for an evacuation plan for all these civilians, but it's unclear where people would go. And there's been an uptick in strikes on Rafah this past week. We know of at least three, including one that killed 16 people on Thursday.

SIMON: Hadeel, wouldn't a ground invasion seemed to defy the warnings President Biden and his aides have given Israel this week?

AL-SHALCHI: Yeah, exactly. President Biden has been a popular figure in Israel so far for showing strong support for the war. But just this week, he told reporters that he found the Israeli operation, quote, "over the top." And speaking to NPR, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said a military operation in the Rafah area cannot proceed and that it would make the humanitarian emergency dramatically worse.

Now, all of this, of course, is happening while mediated negotiations between Hamas and Israel are going on. Hamas wants a cease-fire that would see an end to the war and a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. But Netanyahu responded by calling Hamas' proposal ludicrous. And he's still under enormous pressure to bring the hostages home. So it's all still playing out.

SIMON: Hadeel, what are Israelis with whom you've been able to speak in Tel Aviv in the past few days saying about the war now?

AL-SHALCHI: Yeah. So the city may seem like it's business as usual. Restaurants are full. People are out and about. But there is a tension in the air. And Israelis tell me that everyone is talking about the war all the time. I walked through a market earlier this week, and vendors were selling children's T-shirts with anti-Hamas logos on the front. Restaurants and other stores have posters of hostages with the words bring them home. The families of the hostages hold nearly daily gatherings in the center of Tel Aviv. And later today, there's actually going to be a weekly protest that calls for the end to the war.

SIMON: And I know you've also been speaking with Palestinian citizens of Israel. What do they tell you?

AL-SHALCHI: Palestinian citizens of Israel make up about 2 million people of the population of Israel. And in the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv, which is majority Arab, people here have strong ties to Gaza. Unlike Tel Aviv proper, though, Jaffa is eerily quiet. I've spoken to many Palestinians who say they're afraid to even express grief for loved ones they've lost in Gaza because they think Israeli authorities may take it as an expression of solidarity with Hamas. Shop owners say they've lost Jewish customers. Human rights activists here also say that there is a security clampdown on Palestinians. Many are afraid of getting arrested for posting anything on social media that shows sympathy with Gaza. And several university students have been arrested for being vocal against the war. You know, I even reached out to a number of spiritual leaders in the city to get a sense of what people are telling them, and they all refused to talk to me.

SIMON: NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Tel Aviv. Hadeel, thanks so much for being with us.

AL-SHALCHI: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.
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