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The U.S. is sending warships to the Mediterranean ahead of Israel's expected invasion

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Israeli army says it's preparing for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip after conducting limited raids in search of intelligence and to retrieve bodies of slain Israeli hostages. There were more rockets and missiles into southern Israel from Gaza yesterday. In Gaza, the Palestinian Health Ministry says Saturday was the deadliest day of the war so far, with more than 300 dead, bringing the total number of Palestinian fatalities to more than 2,300 people. The Israeli military said today that 286 soldiers have been killed since the war began more than a week ago, and the death toll from the initial Hamas assault stands at some 1,300 people. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the events from Jerusalem and joins us now. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: What do we know about this planned Israeli incursion into Gaza?

KENYON: Well, at this point, we still don't know when it will happen, and that's quite deliberate on Israel's part. IDF spokespersons have made it clear that the timing of any incursion is a tactical decision. It won't be made public in advance. We'll know it when it happens. There are reasons to believe it could be soon. The biggest sign is the massing of troops closer to the border with Gaza. Another indication is the order for more Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip - that's more than a million people - to immediately go south. That's a strong signal that Gaza City, in the north of the strip, could be an early focal point of an incursion. Israeli officials insist they're doing everything possible to minimize civilian casualties.

RASCOE: And we know that Palestinians are trying to comply with that order. But as you said, you know, this is, like, nearly a million people. How is that going?

KENYON: Well, it is very difficult for many families. They had little or no time to prepare supplies, food, etc. A lack of water seems to be a crucial problem for those who took to the road, along with shortages of food and shelter. Those with friends or family to the south rushed to stay with them, while other displaced families are squeezing into overcrowded schools and hospitals. And officials in Gaza say those hospitals will soon run out of supplies, saying thousands could die. And while all those thousands are trying to flee, that still leaves many more staying in the north. And some northern hospitals that were ordered to evacuate are simply saying, no, we can't. We can't move these patients safely under these conditions, and even if we could, there's nowhere to bring them that's safe and has the capacity to care for them.

RASCOE: Israel, meanwhile, is claiming battlefield success. But what does that mean?

KENYON: Well, the IDF and the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service, are saying they assassinated the Hamas commander who led deadly raids in two communities. The announcement says Bilal al Qadr, commander of Hamas special forces in south Khan Younis, has been killed. Israel holds him responsible for attacks during the Hamas assault on southern Israel at the Nirim and Nir Oz kibbutzes. Yesterday, IDF international spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht left no doubt that targeting the Hamas leaders responsible for the attack is among Israel's top priorities. Now, separately, Israel is denying claims that one of its airstrikes hit a convoy in Gaza that killed more than 70 people. They are also looking into the death of a Reuters cameraman and the wounding of other journalists near the Lebanese border.

RASCOE: The U.S. has promised to make sure Israel can defend itself. And now we hear another group of warships is heading to the region. Is that right?

KENYON: Yes. Washington is sending a second carrier strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean and is sending Air Force fighter jets to the region, as well. That's according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He was here in Israel this weekend. The Pentagon says the ships are not joining the fighting in Israel, but they're there to deter Iran and its proxies in the region from attempting to widen the conflict.

RASCOE: OK, in about 30 seconds we have left, what about foreigners who want to leave Israel?

KENYON: Well, the Rafah crossing didn't open Saturday. That's to Egypt. Many people waited for hours. NPR contacted resident Haneen Okal yesterday, who was stuck at the gate.

HANEEN OKAL: Lots of people are waiting here in front of the Palestinian gate. They all are waiting to get out of here. But the Palestinians are not here to open the gate, and the Egyptians are not there yet, too, from the Egyptian side. So we're all waiting what's going to happen. Nobody has any information, any updates.

KENYON: And separately, the U.S. embassy is telling Americans here that government-arranged transport will be leaving from Haifa by sea, bound for Cyprus. Once there, they may be on their own for further travel.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Jerusalem. Peter, thank you so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Ayesha. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.