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Israel's raid on Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital foreshadows risks of Rafah assault

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's growing concern about Israel's plan to make a ground assault against Hamas in the southern Gaza border city of Rafah. Last night at the White House, a Palestinian American doctor walked out of a meeting that President Biden hosted with Muslim leaders. Before he left the event, Dr. Thaer Ahmad handed the president a letter from an 8-year-old orphaned girl. In the letter, she begs President Biden to stop Israel's planned military assault in Rafah, where she and more than a million other Gazans are sheltering. Here's Dr. Ahmad speaking to NPR.

THAER AHMAD: We're all panicking with this idea of an offensive in Rafah. And I told him that that's something that can absolutely not happen, given that we've been on the ground. We've seen just how overcrowded Rafah is, just how little aid is getting in, and that any sort of military activity there would be catastrophic.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Aya Batrawy is covering the situation from her base in Dubai. And Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here in Washington. Good to have you both with us.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hey.

SHAPIRO: Tom, we know Israeli officials are talking with their American counterparts about that expected operation. What are you hearing?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, there's a consistent message from the Americans. They're telling Israel to mount a more targeted push into Rafah, not a large-scale ground invasion, using precise intelligence to hit Hamas targets. And they want them to give priority to protecting the more than 1 million Palestinians sheltering in this area. U.S. officials are saying, don't proceed unless you have a credible plan that ensures the safety and humanitarian support for them. We expect more talks in the coming days and weeks, so there's no sense that a military operation is imminent.

Now, the Israelis have not shared either a military plan or humanitarian plan with the U.S., only kind of a general sense of what they'll do. But even from the beginning, back in October, the Israelis have not shared any precise plans with the Americans. I was talking with a retired senior officer back then, and he said, the Israelis will listen to the U.S. and then do it their own way.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about what that phrase targeted operation means. Because, Aya, I understand Israel has said its raid on Hamas fighters in and around Gaza's biggest hospital complex was what they call a precise operation, but in your reporting, you've come away with a different impression.

BATRAWY: Yeah. I mean, one takeaway is that just the way that Hamas operates from civilian areas and the huge mounting death toll among Palestinian civilians from direct Israeli fire really show that how you define success and precision can mean wildly different things depending on who you ask. So during this two-week-long siege by Israeli forces on that massive hospital complex known as Al-Shifa, Israelis say they killed 200 militants, apprehended 900 and that not a single civilian was killed during the raid. Let's listen to Israeli government spokesman Avi Hyman, how he summed it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVI HYMAN: I believe that the terrorist takeover of Shifa and the subsequent special forces operation to clear the hospital of terrorists will be studied by future generations of military strategists at West Point and Sandhurst as the gold standard for urban warfare.

BATRAWY: This raid wrapped up in the wee hours of Monday, and we finally got a look at what that looked like through NPR's photographer, Omar El Qattaa, there. Now, he sent us testimonies and photos showing complete and utter destruction not just of the entire hospital, but bodies decomposing in its courtyard, inside the hospital's hallways and the streets surrounding it, homes destroyed and burnt around the hospital.

We know that civilians were killed. Doctors at Al-Shifa buried three colleagues yesterday, including a reconstructive surgeon killed with his mother. Others outside the hospital say they know or saw people killed who were not militants. And The Washington Post says Israel's military is describing the raid at Al-Shifa as a model for future action in Gaza - possibly a way to carry out, you know, strikes in Rafah.

SHAPIRO: Well, on that same point about precision targeting, Israel says it carried out the airstrike that killed seven aid workers delivering food for World Central Kitchen on Monday night. Were these precise airstrikes?

BATRAWY: They were. The Israeli military intended to hit these vehicles, but they say they were misidentified and had, you know, thought that they were hostile targets. But what we know is that the World Central Kitchen said it coordinated closely with the Israeli military. They agreed on the route. All the coordinates were given to the Israelis. Their vehicles were clearly marked with the charity's logo.

Now, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the territory also makes the point, though, that this is not an isolated incident. Jamie McGoldrick says as of March 20, at least 196 humanitarian aid workers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war October 7, when Hamas launched its attack on Israel. So the bottom line is nowhere and no one is safe in Gaza. And the work of this charity is now suspended in Gaza, where famine is looming, according to IPC, a body of independent experts. We've also documented cases of children dying of hunger and children being born premature because - and underweight - because their mothers are not eating enough.

SHAPIRO: Well, back to you, Tom. As we heard from that Palestinian American doctor, there's a lot of anger and pressure on the Biden administration. Do you sense that's having any impact?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, there's growing pressure from the Arab American community, from college campuses, within the Democratic Party. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, some who say let's put conditions on weapons being sent or halt weapons deliveries. That pressure will likely grow with a Rafah operation. Now, will it matter? Probably not. The administration recently approved fighter jets and bombs for Israel. And even if the U.S. halted weapons deliveries, Ari, there's no sense the Israelis would stop. They have repeatedly said they will, quote, "finish the job." And I'm told they have enough weapons for months of military operations.

SHAPIRO: So it seems the administration realizes the Rafah operation is likely to happen, and they're focusing on getting humanitarian relief to Palestinians. But relief organizations like World Central Kitchen have scaled back or paused their operations in Gaza. Is this likely to actually meet the need?

BOWMAN: The United States is pressing Israel to open more border crossings. That has not happened. They've been urging that for months now. So the U.S. is mounting some kind of workarounds. They're dropping humanitarian aid by military aircraft. They're also building this temporary pier with a causeway that will offload aid from ships so that trucks can drive it into probably northern Gaza. But that pier will not be operational until at least the first week of May. And when that happens, Israel says it will provide security on the ground. Jordan may help out as well. No American troops will be on the ground in Gaza.

But Ari, after the World Central Kitchen attack, who will be willing to drive trucks into Gaza? And what about desperate Palestinians crowding that area? How chaotic will it be? There's a lot of concern about that on the American side.

SHAPIRO: Well, Aya, what is Israel saying about its plans for Rafah?

BATRAWY: So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he's insisting that he will send forces into Rafah to destroy Hamas battalions there to finish the war. But he's under pressure internationally, particularly, as Tom was mentioning, to get more aid into Gaza, allow more of that in. Domestically, there are also huge protests now in Israel demanding a cease-fire to release around a hundred hostages still held there.

But, you know, there's more than a million children in Gaza, and most of them now are crammed into Rafah. And at NPR, we've documented a rise in the number of airstrikes on that city over the past week or so, and disproportionately the number of people killed have been children. So civil defense paramedics told NPR that out of 18 airstrikes in the span of eight days, 93 people were killed, 42 of them were children.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy and Tom Bowman. Thank you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

BATRAWY: Thanks.

(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.

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.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.