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Thousands of Palestinians try to survive Israel strikes on Rafah

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

There seems to be nowhere to run for Palestinians in Gaza right now. This week Israeli airstrikes killed 13 people in the southern city of Rafah. That's where Israel had previously told Gazans they would be safe. The strikes are part of Israel's continuing retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attack. Untold thousands of Gazans are trying to survive in Rafah now. The border with Egypt is closed, and Egypt has warned Israel not to let the conflict spill over into its territory. Hisham Mhanna is in Rafah. He's a spokesperson with the International Committee of the Red Cross. When we spoke earlier, I asked him about day-to-day life now for people in Rafah.

HISHAM MHANNA: Well, living in a tent, it's cold with winter, and mud gets inside these tents. There is no access to health care service. There are children who were recently born, and they live in these conditions now with their families. And the majority of them cannot afford to get them powdered milk, diapers because they are either unavailable or because they are extremely expensive. And this is the perfect environment for spreading of diseases like flu, influenza, chickenpox, hepatitis A. There is even thousands of people who are entitled to receive medical care on regular basis - like time-sensitive patients, cancer patients, pregnant women, persons with disabilities. And they have been disconnected from the health care system for months. And some of them are more vulnerable than ever when they are forced to live in such conditions. Adding to that, the fear, the anxiety - people are scared because they have been already through so much. And they have no idea where they go to if, you know, unfortunately, things become worse in Gaza.

PFEIFFER: And to emphasize something you said, these are people who have, in many cases or in some cases, moved multiple times already. They've been displaced repeatedly.

MHANNA: Yes, exactly. The majority of them have left from either the north, the middle area or Khan Younis Governorate, and they have nowhere to go back to, and there is no destination. There's no clear destination for them in the future, so they're kind of stuck.

PFEIFFER: What do people in Rafah need the most now in terms of supplies?

MHANNA: Well, not only in Rafah. People across the Gaza Strip need, first and foremost, to feel safe. They need a rest from the fighting. And everything is needed. They need access to food. They need access to proper housing. They cannot live in tents or makeshift tents forever. They need access to clean water. They need access to fuel because they need to cook a meal. They need to warm up, you know, the place where they are living. They need medication. The vast majority of people with high blood pressure or diabetes - they have issues with securing - you know, getting access to the medicine. Despite of that it's - like, other organizations are trying to provide that. But access to health care service in general - it's super-challenging.

PFEIFFER: What are the refuge options, if any, for these Gazans who've already had to move multiple times in seek of safety? Is there anywhere they could or should go now if they can't stay where they are?

MHANNA: Inside Gaza Strip, no, simply, because if they have to move from one government to another, that would be super-risky. Many people had to evacuate areas under fire. Humanitarian workers have come under fire while delivering humanitarian aid, including the ICRC. And I was in one of these convoys trying to deliver humanitarian aid, mainly medicine, to hospitals in the North. And we came under fire. One of the truck drivers was injured, and we were lucky not to lose anyone at that time.

PFEIFFER: Is the best hope for Gazans now that Egypt opens its border and the - that country will take them in?

MHANNA: Look. I think it's more important to focus on ensuring the security and safety for those who wish to stay, who do not want to leave, who cannot leave. And talking about opening the borders for those who leave - I don't think that's even optional for those who wish to leave. It's not an easy decision.

PFEIFFER: Hisham Mhanna is in Rafah with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Thank you for your time.

MHANNA: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Kathryn Fox
Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.