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The latest in Israel’s expanding military operations in Rafah

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First, to the fighting in Gaza. Israel's military continues to expand operations in the southern Gaza city that has been the focus of the war these past few months. Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to warn Israel against a major operation in Rafah. To break this down, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre here in Washington and Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. And Daniel, you kick us off. The Israeli military has been in Rafah for a little while now. When we say operations are expanding, what does that look like?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, tanks, as you say, have been on the ground for about the last three weeks in Rafah. But now Israel says that it's in full control - tactical control of the Egypt-Gaza border. This is a border region that Israel says it's found tunnels crossing from Gaza into Egypt that Israel says Hamas has used to smuggle weapons and supplies into Gaza. But also in the populated areas of Rafah, just in the past day, tanks have advanced deeper into the city. Israel's also intensified its artillery and aerial bombardment of the city. There was, of course, this weekend airstrike that got a lot of attention. It sparked a fire and killed more than 40 Palestinians in a displaced people's camp.

KELLY: Yeah.

ESTRIN: Israel has called it a tragic mishap, but there have been even more bombardment and more civilians killed just in the days since.

KELLY: Greg Myre, jump in here. Daniel saying tanks - Israeli tanks advancing deeper into Rafah. Where does that leave the Biden administration? Is there any indication they plan some sort of action against Israel?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, the short answer is no. The message from President Biden for several months now is that he doesn't want to see a major military action in Rafah. He's even warned about possibly withholding some military support unless there's a credible plan to protect all the Palestinian civilians in that area.

KELLY: Right.

MYRE: So the National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, has reemphasized this, but he says the U.S. is not viewing the current Israeli action as a major operation. He says the Israelis are not in large columns or large formations, so there's no public indication the U.S. will sanction Israel for what it's seeing now.

But as Daniel noted, Israeli tanks are in and around the city. And so this may not be an all-out assault, but Israel is clearly stepping up pressure on Rafah. And the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been very clear. He says Israel must defeat Hamas in Rafah.

KELLY: Daniel, what impact is all this having on the humanitarian state of conditions in Gaza?

ESTRIN: Well, from the perspective of people on the ground, this is a major, major moment. It's one of the biggest mass displacements in Gaza since the beginning of the war. The United Nations says nearly a million people have fled Rafah over just the past few weeks, fleeing to either overcrowded areas or, you know, our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, met one family sheltering in the rubble of a damaged school. Medical clinics have been evacuated from Rafah. The United Nations says that the entire operations of delivering aid have just been choked off because this border area, which is now a combat zone, is also the major entry point for aid getting into Gaza and southern Gaza. So food distribution has been halted in the area. Fuel supplies are at a trickle, which means there's not enough to power all the bakeries and hospitals and water wells.

KELLY: I'm going to ask you both a step-back, bigger-picture question. Greg Myre, where does this leave U.S. efforts to try to broker a cease-fire to end the war? Where does it stand?

MYRE: Well, President Biden still wants a cease-fire and a deal to free the Israeli hostages and, by extension, some Palestinian prisoners. This is according to John Kirby, speaking today. However, the cease-fire talks, which have been going on for months, are off for the moment, and this fighting that we're seeing in Rafah could make it much more difficult to restart them. Hamas is indicating it won't negotiate while it's under fire in Rafah. And Egypt, which has been one of the mediators along with the U.S., is now upset that Israel has moved into the Rafah area, along its border. Israel and Egyptian troops traded fire a couple days ago. One Egyptian soldier was killed. This has increased the tension between these two countries. So the U.S. and Israel continue to be in more or less constant contact. But the Biden administration, especially behind the scenes, has been frustrated by the Israeli government, and Rafah is just the latest example of this.

KELLY: Daniel, the big-picture question for you - I mean, Israel has said all through this war its chief goal is - it's bringing home the hostages and defeating Hamas. Where does it stand on that - the defeating Hamas effort?

ESTRIN: Well, the hostages are not home - no negotiations have been renewed to bring them home - and Hamas still has a lot of boots on the ground. It's fighting Israel in Rafah. Israel says it's going to be choking off a significant lifeline to Hamas by taking over the border, but, you know, Hamas is not defeated. It's got a fighting force. It's killed some soldiers recently in Rafah. Governing-wise, Hamas is still in control of the population - the civilian population. And in Israel, there's a very open debate now - a realization that a true defeat of Hamas would need Israel to occupy Gaza for the very long term, which Israel isn't prepared to do.

KELLY: That's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv and Greg Myre here in Washington. Thanks to you both.

MYRE: Thanks, Mary Louise.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(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.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.