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A crisis is underway as the Egyptian border is flooded with fleeing Palestinian refugees

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas - in an effort to flee the worst of the fighting, more than a million Palestinians have left their homes and squeezed into the southern tip of Gaza. They still face Israeli bombardment there, and those million-plus people in southern Gaza can look right through its border fence. They can see the safety of Egypt's vast Sinai Peninsula on the other side. So why isn't Egypt opening its border to Palestinians besieged in Gaza? To find out, we're joined by NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai and NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Hey, you two.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: I want you both to paint us a picture of this border, just so we can visualize it. Greg, you first - what is the scene today on the Gaza side of the border?

MYRE: Yeah. Let me describe a satellite photo that shows the real contrast here. On one side - the Gaza side - there's all these displaced Palestinians in tents. They're packed together, side-by-side, in the sandy soil. They've completely overwhelmed the southern border town of Rafah. Now, Israel is carrying out airstrikes in the Rafah area - more than a half dozen last night and today. More civilian casualties are reported, and Israel is warning of a possible ground offensive in Rafah. They say this is the last Hamas stronghold in the territory. But now, on the other side of this satellite photo, just across the border fence, on the Egyptian side, you see the wide-open desert spaces of the Sinai Peninsula. Yet Egypt keeps this border tightly closed - something it's almost always done over the years.

KELLY: OK. Aya, you jump in because you've reported extensively from that side - from Egypt. What is happening on the Egyptian side?

BATRAWY: Well, currently, Egyptian security officials are telling NPR that there is an enclosed sort of security zone being built up with these blast walls - these big cement walls. It's like a buffer zone right there that would be able to hold 150,000 Palestinians in the event that they break through that border with Egypt to flee an Israeli ground invasion and intense bombardment in Rafah. And now Egypt has warned that forced displacement is a red line.

Now, I've also been to this border area since the beginning of the war, and I've seen tanks there. I've seen Egyptian troops. But I've also seen a lot of aid trucks lined up, trying to get in. For most of this war, this border has been the only way for aid to get into Gaza. You know, time and again, since Israel's founding in 1948, Palestinians have been forced to flee their homes. And Egyptians, they don't want to be a part of facilitating that happening again now in Gaza.

KELLY: Ah. And I just want to hear what is on people's minds - the people who are stuck in Rafah, on the Gaza side, no way out, at least for now. What are they saying?

BATRAWY: Well, I spoke with Karin Huster today. She's a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. She just left Gaza a few days ago after spending five weeks there, including time in Rafah.

KARIN HUSTER: I've never heard anybody say we want to go to Egypt. They just want to be in a place where they don't get bombarded and where they can sleep and where they can wake up the next day alive. Some people have even told me, you know, I want to go back to my home. And even if it's destroyed, I'll put my tent there, and it'll be safer, you know? At least I will die on my home.

BATRAWY: And Huster - well, she survived intense Israeli bombardment from the sea and from the air. And she says some families are packing up their mattresses and whatever they can carry and heading to the coast - literally setting up tents on the beach within sight of Israeli naval ships in anticipation of a wider Israeli ground offensive in Rafah.

KELLY: That really drives home the urgency and the timing here. Greg, on that point, what is the possibility of a ground operation in Rafah? What's Israel saying?

MYRE: Yeah, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says military planning is going on for an operation - a ground operation in Rafah. He has pledged time and again that he won't leave any part of the Hamas military infrastructure intact, and Hamas is still believed to have several thousand fighters in the Rafah area.

However, Netanyahu is facing this intense international pressure not to move on Rafah. Even his strongest backer, President Biden, says Israel's military shouldn't act unless there's a credible plan to evacuate these very vulnerable Palestinian civilians. And Netanyahu has told the military to come up with a plan, but there's no sign of it, and there's no real clear options. The other parts of Gaza were devastated as Israel moved from north to south. Very limited aid is reaching these areas in particular. So there's really no way to cope with a large influx of Palestinians, even if they were to move to another part of Gaza.

And in addition, several members of Israeli's government have even been calling to push the Palestinians out of Gaza. Now, Israel says it's not the official policy; it doesn't want to displace Palestinians from Gaza. But comments like this do stoke fears with both the Palestinians and the Egyptians.

KELLY: Yeah. And Aya, back to you - is it fair to say that by keeping its borders sealed to Palestinians, that Egypt is effectively aiding in Israel's blockade of Gaza?

BATRAWY: Well, that's the dilemma Egypt faces, and it's done that, essentially, for more than 16 years by mostly keeping that border sealed. But it really doesn't have a lot of good options here. I mean, first of all, Egypt doesn't have full control over this border. Israel does. Israel decides what kind of aid can get in and who can get out.

But also, you know, Egypt's government has to take into consideration public opinion, which is very sympathetic in Egypt to the Palestinian plight for liberation and statehood. And I was in Cairo after the start of this war, and I met Noha Bakr there. She's a professor of international relations at The American University in Cairo. And I asked her if she thinks Egypt should open its border with Gaza for people to leave. And what she told me is something that I think rings true among a lot of Egyptians.

NOHA BAKR: This is ethnic cleansing. This is forced migration. Do you want me to support it?

KELLY: Huh. So, I mean, Aya, you said Egypt doesn't have a lot of options. What are its options here?

BATRAWY: Well, quietly, among diplomats, you know, Egyptians have told their Western counterparts they are ready to suspend the more than 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel should that border be breached in the event of a ground invasion into Rafah by Israeli forces. And, of course, that would upend a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy and security strategy in the Middle East.

But on another track, Egypt is a key mediator between Israel and Hamas. You know, they are hosting Hamas leaders this week. They're hosting talks. They're trying to get a six-week truce in place that could see hostages released out of Gaza and maybe an end to the war and Palestinian prisoners released. So they're working hard on that track as well.

KELLY: That is NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai - thank you...

BATRAWY: Thank you.

KELLY: ...And Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Thanks to you.

MYRE: Sure thing, Mary Louise. 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.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.