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Israeli forces seize the Gaza side of Rafah, as Hamas truce talks resume in Egypt

This photo provided by the Israel Defense Forces shows a tank with an Israel flag on it entering the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on Tuesday.
AP
This photo provided by the Israel Defense Forces shows a tank with an Israel flag on it entering the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on Tuesday.

Updated May 07, 2024 at 14:13 PM ET

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israeli tanks rolled into the southern Gaza city of Rafah Tuesday, taking control of the territory's border crossing with Egypt, even as Israel sent a delegation to Cairo to resume talks for a truce.

Israel says it launched a limited ground assault in Rafah, less than 24 hours after telling about 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate parts of the city, despite United Nations warnings of "potentially catastrophic consequences" for civilians there.

"This is the beginning of our mission to take out the last four Hamas brigades in Rafah," Israeli government spokesperson Avi Hyman said.

The operation follows hours of mixed signals about a proposed truce agreed to by Hamas, then rejected by Israel, which said it would send a delegation to negotiate a deal. Egypt, which is hosting the talks, has condemned the Israeli incursion in the Gaza border city as "a dangerous escalation."

Here are some keys to understanding where things stand Tuesday as the Israel-Hamas war reaches the seven-month mark.

Rafah is a key aid route

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Israel's takeover and closure of the vital Rafah crossing for Gaza cuts off a key aid route into the territory, where U.N. experts warn that people in some areas face famine while some have already died of hunger. Israel's Kerem Shalom crossing into Rafah also remains closed.

The humanitarian organization MedGlobal says a team of doctors traveling from Cairo to Rafah to assist overstretched hospitals and the wounded had to turn around because of the situation at the crossing, which is now sealed to anyone trying to enter or leave Gaza.

The group says patients in Gaza's few remaining functioning hospitals "will bear the awful consequences" of this assault on Rafah.

A Palestinian youth stands in front of a destroyed building following Israeli bombardment of Rafah's Tal al-Sultan district in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. The Israeli army said it took "operational control" of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and that troops were scanning the area.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A Palestinian youth stands in front of a destroyed building following Israeli bombardment of Rafah's Tal al-Sultan district in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. The Israeli army said it took "operational control" of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and that troops were scanning the area.

Israeli airstrikes hit parts of Rafah

Israeli airstrikes have been pounding Rafah for weeks, killing hundreds there since late March, most of them women and children, according to hospital records.

Israel says Hamas runs tunnels and has battalions in Rafah it wants to dismantle.

New airstrikes overnight hit a number of targets in the city, including more than seven homes, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. The ministry says at least 25 people were killed in Monday night's airstrikes, with people still trapped under the rubble.

Rescue workers search under the rubble of a building in Rafah outside the evacuation zone that was hit by an Israeli airstrike on Tuesday. Health officials in Gaza say at least 13 people from one family were killed in that attack.
Anas Baba / NPR
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NPR
Rescue workers search under the rubble of a building in Rafah outside the evacuation zone that was hit by an Israeli airstrike on Tuesday. Health officials in Gaza say at least 13 people from one family were killed in that attack.

One of the strikes hit a home in a part of Rafah that didn't receive evacuation orders, killing 13 members of the al-Dirby family, according to hospital records.

"Yesterday, they celebrated and said there's a cease-fire, but Israel doesn't agree. It doesn't want one," said Amal al-Dirby, as she shut her eyes and named off at least nine relatives killed by the airstrike.

"We don't want reconstruction. We don't want aid. We don't want money. We want our lives, our souls," she said, crying. "Kids, they were just kids."

Rafah's main hospital and morgue are in the area Israel's military has ordered people to evacuate from.

"Everyone is anxiously awaiting what will happen next, uncertain of where they will go," said a worker with international aid group Mercy Corps, who asked not to be named out of safety concerns.

Egypt and Qatar mediating

The incursion — which the Israeli military describes as a "precise counterterrorism operation" targeting Hamas and its infrastructure — got underway even as negotiators were trying to keep possible cease-fire talks alive.

Egypt is hosting the talks and Qatar, another mediator, said Hamas would send a delegation to Cairo Tuesday. Egyptian officials close to the talks said an Israeli delegation was also set to arrive in Cairo for the indirect negotiations. The officials spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

Copies of the three-stage deal that Hamas agreed to were leaked Monday night and published in various Arabic media outlets. The Egyptian officials confirmed details of the proposal with NPR. The terms included temporary pauses in fighting, Hamas freeing Israeli hostages over stages in exchange for Israel's release of Palestinian captives and detainees, more aid entering Gaza and Israeli troops withdrawing from parts of the territory.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike on buildings near the separating wall between Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Monday.
Ramez Habboub / AP
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AP
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike on buildings near the separating wall between Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Monday.

The Egyptian officials told NPR that intelligence agencies were discussing confidential clauses such as whether the United States would guarantee an end to the war and which Gulf Arab states would pay to rebuild Gaza.

The White House expressed optimism about this round. "A close assessment of the two sides' positions suggests that they should be able to close the remaining gaps, and we're going to do everything we can to support that process and achieve that outcome," said John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council.

Israel's War Cabinet said Monday the deal Hamas agreed to fell short of its "core demands," without elaborating. Israel has insisted on continuing the war, rejecting a key Hamas requirement that a truce lead to a permanent cease-fire. Israel's leadership says an end to the war now would keep Hamas intact. Israel's stated war aims have been to broadly eradicate the group after it carried out the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people and left with more than 200 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

Thousands of Israelis and the relatives of hostages poured onto the streets of Tel Aviv Monday night to urge the government to get a deal over the finish line.

Hamas said the ground assault on Rafah confirms Israel's "intention to disrupt mediation efforts for a cease-fire and the release of prisoners" for the personal interests of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "and his extremist government."

The assault on Rafah was something Netanyahu had vowed would happen with or without a cease-fire deal. The threat of an invasion had weighed heavily on truce talks and efforts to broker a deal.

Just how far Israeli troops push into Rafah or widen the operation will also affect the talks and the Biden administration's efforts to bring an end to the war, which has killed more than 34,000 and wounded nearly 78,000 Palestinians in Gaza since October, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.

Kirby said Israel had assured the U.S. that its strikes in Rafah were limited in scale, scope and duration, but he said the administration remains concerned that a large military ground operation there would put civilians at risk.

"What we've been told by our Israeli counterparts is that this operation last night was limited and was designed to cut off Hamas' ability to smuggle weapons and funds into Gaza," Kirby said.

He said the U.S. is pushing Israel to reopen the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza for aid to flow through.

Hundreds of Palestinians leave eastern Rafah for the coastline of Deir al-Balah after the Israeli army announced it has taken control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing, in the Gaza Strip, Tuesday.
Ashraf Amra / Anadolu via Getty Images
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Anadolu via Getty Images
Hundreds of Palestinians leave eastern Rafah for the coastline of Deir al-Balah after the Israeli army announced it has taken control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing, in the Gaza Strip, Tuesday.

Many Rafah's residents flee the city by foot while others stay

President Biden has said a major Israeli assault on Rafah must have a plan for ensuring the safety of civilians. The White House said Monday Biden reiterated his position in a call with Netanyahu.

People in Rafah say there was no clear plan. On Monday, the Israeli military dropped leaflets and sent messages telling people to evacuate parts of Rafah to the area of al-Mawasi. Families frantically packed their belongings, took down tent shelters and carried whatever belongings they could with them. Some told NPR they were being displaced for the fourth or fifth time during the war.

Children were seen walking for miles as others pushed wounded relatives in wheelchairs to al-Mawasi. Aid groups say there are no vital services or shelters there.

More than a million Palestinians have been sheltering in Rafah for much of the war, and many told NPR in recent weeks they weren't sure if they'd be able to leave the city. Some had nowhere else to go while others didn't have the money for car rides to transport their sick relatives.

Egypt, which maintains close security coordination with Israel, issued a statement condemning the Israeli attack on Rafah and the presence of Israeli troops on its side of the Gaza border. Egypt's Foreign Ministry called on Israel to "stay away from a policy of brinkmanship that has long-term impact."

Copyright 2024 NPR

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.
Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]