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Palestinians in Rafah describe the airstrikes of Sunday night

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Israeli military says that last night, it rescued from a house in Rafah, Gaza, two hostages taken by Hamas on October 7. The military used a series of airstrikes as a diversion, killing more than 60 Palestinians. That is according to health officials in Gaza. This comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the army to come up with a plan to evacuate Rafah ahead of a possible ground invasion. NPR's Hadeel al-Shalchi brings us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, BYLINE: The explosions overnight in Rafah had people wondering if the ground invasion had started.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: It's a very intensive shelling all around me.

AL-SHALCHI: NPR producer Anas Baba is in the city.

BABA: My cousin just woke up just screaming, just let me go. I just want to understand what's happening here. I can see all of the smoke raises.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

AL-SHALCHI: His cousin shouts, "has it begun?" But this was not the feared Israeli offensive. We now know, according to the Israeli military, that the strikes were part of an operation that freed two hostages. Shereen Zoghob was displaced to Rafah. She points to her shellshocked son. He's being treated for wounds on his arm.

SHEREEN ZOGHOB: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: "What's his fault?" she cries. "Does he have a weapon? He has no weapon. All these children were asleep. Have mercy on us."

Rafah is now a city of 1.4 million displaced people, and they're on edge since Netanyahu called for an evacuation plan.

JIHAD ABU AMER: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: In a crowded market days earlier, vendors call out their wares. In the marketplace is Jihad Abu Amer. He was displaced to Rafah with his family and is worried about what Israel might do next.

ABU AMER: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: "This operation will be a massacre because the city is so dense," he says. Rafah borders Egypt. It normally has a population of 250,000 people.

ABU AMER: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: "It's a sad city and a poor city and destroyed. And it's never mentioned on the map except during war," Abu Amer says.

Also at the market is Yousef al-Syersawi. His family was displaced twice, once to Khan Younis and then to Rafah. He says Israel may force him to move again.

YOUSEF AL-SYERSAWI: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: "Their threats are to be taken seriously," he says. "Because of the reality we've lived, it isn't far-fetched that the occupation forces enter Rafah and finish their military operation."

Life in the southern city has become increasingly difficult. The U.N. says the city has produced a year's worth of garbage in the past three months. There's a scarcity of food, clean water and sanitation that's leading to disease. People in Rafah say if the evacuation becomes a reality, they don't know what to do.

ZEYAD ABOULOUN: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: "Where are we supposed to go?" says Zeyad Abouloun. "Someone answer me that question. The whole world is against us, America and Israel and the Arabs. Where are we supposed to go?"

Egypt won't take in refugees from Rafah. It's worried that Israel won't let Palestinians back and that it will have a humanitarian crisis on its hands. But Palestinians in Rafah say they just want one thing.

ABU AMER: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: "We hope this war will end and people will go back to their homes," Abu Amer says. "We don't want anything else, and we want this bloodbath to end."

With Anas Baba in Rafah, Gaza, I'm Hadeel al-Shalchi, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.