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Netanyahu approves plan to invade Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a military plan to invade Rafah in Gaza. The U.S., Egypt and humanitarian groups have cautioned against such an invasion, saying it would create an even larger humanitarian catastrophe. NPR's Fatma Tanis joins us from Jerusalem. Thanks very much for being with us.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What is known about Netanyahu's plans?

TANIS: So following a war cabinet meeting yesterday, Netanyahu said the military would move forward with an invasion of Rafah, where nearly 1.4 million Palestinians are crammed in after being displaced from other areas. Netanyahu said that the military was also preparing to evacuate most of that population to what he called humanitarian islands in the middle of the Gaza Strip.

Now, there's been a lot of international pressure on Israel to refrain from invading the south. But Israel says Hamas is still active there. And it's unclear when this invasion would happen. And also, the exact details of what these humanitarian islands would look like.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said yesterday that the U.S. wants to see a clear and implementable plan for a Rafah invasion that would get civilians out of harm's way and also see that they have shelter, food and medicine and that the U.S. has not seen such a plan yet. Scott, this announcement was also seen by some as a bargaining chip for possible cease-fire negotiations.

SIMON: Fatma, how are Senator Chuck Schumer's comments criticizing Netanyahu and calling for early elections in Israel being received there?

TANIS: Well, it hasn't really gone over so well, especially with the political leadership here. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's political rival - you know, polls show him as winning if an early election were to happen. And he said that external intervention in Israel's domestic affairs was unacceptable. Israel's ambassador to D.C., Michael Herzog, also called the comments counterproductive. Of course, the U.S. is still continuing its unconditional military aid to Israel.

One thing that's important to remember, Scott, is that, you know, even as there are many people in Israel also calling for early elections to oust Netanyahu, the majority of Israeli public support some of Israel's war policies, such as eliminating Hamas, and also don't want to see humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza.

SIMON: And, Fatma, what about that aid? First arrived yesterday by sea, I gather?

TANIS: Yes. That was the World Central Kitchen, which has prepared 200 tons of aid. It's been shipped from Cyprus. And, Scott, you know, it's still a trickle compared to what's actually needed. Yesterday, UNICEF came out with a report that said that the number of children with acute malnutrition in Gaza had doubled in just one month, and that it's spreading fast and in unprecedented levels across the Gaza Strip. They're warning of severe wasting among older children as well and highlighting the need of - for immediate and consistent access to nutritious food. And aid groups say that the sea routes and the airdrops, while helpful, just won't get it done. Here's Ciaran Donnelly. He's the head of crisis response for the International Rescue Committee.

CIARAN DONNELLY: Airdrops are completely unnecessary in Gaza if two conditions can be met - if the obstacles to bringing aid in by road can be lifted, and if the fighting can stop. And those two things are entirely within the power of decision-makers and in the Israeli authorities and their international partners to bring about.

TANIS: Now, aid groups say that Israel has to allow more aid in by land. And so far, there's still only one Israeli border crossing with Gaza that's open.

SIMON: NPR's Fatma Tanis in Jerusalem. Thanks so much for being with us.

TANIS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.