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Palestinians in Rafah say they're in limbo as Israel threatens an assault

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Mediators have drawn up new cease-fire proposals for Hamas and Israel that would free Israeli hostages and Palestinian detainees. Crucially, a cease-fire could also halt a planned Israeli assault on Rafah, the Southern city in Gaza where most Palestinians are displaced. People there are weighing the risks of what to do and where to go. NPR's Aya Batrawy and Anas Baba have this report. And a warning - some descriptions in this story may be distressing.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Rafah is teeming with life. Its streets are jam-packed with pedestrians, street vendors and cars. Rafah wasn't built to hold half of Gaza's population. Before the war, it was home to about a quarter million people. Now more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering here, either in tents or with extended family in crowded apartments. Israel says it's planning an assault on the city to dismantle Hamas battalions and target tunnels but hasn't said when that might happen. People in Rafah say they don't know how to prepare.

ALAA WAHDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Alaa Wahdan (ph) has six children. The oldest is just 11 years old. She says she's mentally ready to leave Rafah at a moment's notice. But she's tired, tired, tired, she says.

WAHDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: She says, "we'll live in tents, whatever the circumstances, but give us safety, security." That's what she wants most for her kids. Rafah, like the rest of Gaza, isn't safe for civilians. Near daily airstrikes have targeted the city over the past six weeks as Israel ramps up pressure. This week, a 5-day-old baby was killed in an overnight airstrike. He was buried with his father. The morgue on Monday filled up with the bodies of 25 people killed in Israeli airstrikes. Hospital records show 15 of them women and children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Crying).

BATRAWY: A woman cries next to her deceased brother, who's in a white body bag. She says everyone's gone. She cries that this is her sixth brother to lose. Fearing a major Israeli attack on Rafah, some people have already left the city. Some have gone a little north, setting up tents in Al Mawasi on the dirt, where there's less access to the humanitarian aid that enters Rafah from Egypt. Others have pitched their tents in central Gaza, but airstrikes have killed thousands there, too. Alaa Sabah (ph) has already moved five times during this war.

ALAA SABAH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Sabah says even if he wanted to leave Rafah and head to central Gaza, he doesn't have the money to. It costs around $200 for a single car ride. To move his entire family and their few belongings, he says he'll need $2,000. Where will I find that kind of money, he says? Abdullah al-Ghalban (ph), another resident here, says he, too, can't leave the city.

ABDULLAH AL-GHALBAN: (Through interpreter) I have three physically disabled people with me. I don't know where to go with them or how to move them. Do I go to Al Mawasi, Khan Younis, north Gaza? We don't know where to go or which direction to take.

BATRAWY: There are risks to staying in Rafah and risks to leaving. But one key advantage here is that this is still where many aid organizations are set up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Project Hope is one of them. The group runs a field clinic in Rafah among tents for displaced people. Inside is Asma Ebeid (ph). She's here to treat a burn on her foot.

ASMA EBEID: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: She says she cares about her kids and grandkids. For their sake, she will leave Rafah and go wherever Israel's military tells people to go. Ebeid doesn't dream of much, she says, just a cup of tea. But even that has become a luxury. Life here, she says, is about survival.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Dubai, with Anas Baba in Rafah. 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.

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