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What's next for Rafah

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Israel's government did not accept the cease-fire proposal but is sending a delegation to Egypt to continue negotiations, all while Israel's military has entered Rafah. For more on the latest, we're joined here in studio by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Greg, start by telling us where things stand with the Israeli military operation in Rafah.

MYRE: Well, Israel had warned for months that it would carry out a military operation in Rafah at the very southern edge of Gaza. And today it finally acted, sending in tanks and ground troops to take over the border crossing there. And we should stress the Israelis are on the Gaza side of the crossing, where they have raised the Israeli flag, but they're not on the Egyptian side, which is very close by.

Israel says 20 Palestinian militants were killed, while the Palestinians are talking about a dozen women and children killed in an Israeli airstrike. Now, Israel says this is a limited operation, not a major offensive on the entire city of Rafah as Israel has threatened. Still, it creates a very volatile situation. This border crossing is the main route for humanitarian aid into Gaza - food, fuel, medicine. It's not clear if or when it might reopen, but aid groups say it's already complicating the very difficult job of delivering aid there.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that Israel is calling this a limited operation. If that's the case, do we have a sense of what Israel is trying to accomplish?

MYRE: So Israel's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, visited the area and said that this operation will continue until we eliminate Hamas in the Rafah area in the entire Gaza strip or until the first hostage return - so little wiggle room there, but he is suggesting this could be stage one of a much more extensive operation against Hamas, its last stronghold in Gaza, where it's believed to have several thousand fighters. Now, I spoke about the potential scope of the Israeli effort with Chuck Freilich. He's a former deputy national security advisor in Israel.

CHUCK FREILICH: I don't know that it's going to be a major operation if people are thinking in terms of the kind of all-out assault that we saw in the early stages of the war. I think that this operation will be a graduated one, neighborhood by neighborhood, rather than trying to take all of Rafah in one big operation.

SUMMERS: And, Greg, this comes after weeks of intense efforts to reach a cease-fire. Where does that stand today?

MYRE: Right. So as we noted, just a moment ago, Israel and Hamas have both sent teams to Cairo today for another round of talks after this roller-coaster of a day on Monday, particularly for Palestinians in Rafah. Some of them woke yesterday to Israeli leaflets falling from the sky, telling them to evacuate the eastern side of Rafah. Some of them were scrambling to get out a few hours later, when Hamas announced it was accepting a cease-fire. This led to street celebrations, a sense of relief, only to be followed by the Israeli airstrikes and now a ground invasion.

So the bottom line is there's still no cease-fire, and the main sticking point remains. Hamas wants a permanent cease-fire that effectively ends the war. Israel says it won't accept that. Israel says it will agree to a temporary six-week truce with the possibility of extending it. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he won't consider the war over until Hamas is completely defeated.

SUMMERS: And, Greg, I want to ask you about the view from here in the United States. How is the Biden administration looking at this move from the Israeli military?

MYRE: So they haven't commented directly, but President Biden spoke with Netanyahu yesterday, and the White House said the president reiterated his clear position on Rafah. And that position is that Israel should not go ahead with a major military operation unless there's a credible plan to ensure the safety of the more than 1 million Palestinians sheltering there. And just hours after they spoke, Israel began with the airstrike and then sent the tanks today. So we could debate what constitutes a major military operation, but this is clearly at odds with the Biden administration's ongoing push for a cease-fire.

SUMMERS: Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, Juana.

SUMMERS: That is NPR's Greg Myre. 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.