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Israeli strike kills at least 45 in an area of Rafah that didn't get evacuation orders

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An airstrike in the southern city of Rafah in Gaza on Sunday killed at least 45 people and injured dozens. That's according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. The airstrike occurred in an area that had not been given evacuation orders, and it comes just days after the U.N.'s International Court of Justice ordered an immediate halt to the Israeli operation in Rafah. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has been following this from Tel Aviv. Hey, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, before we get started, I do want to warn listeners I know you're going to be sharing some details of the aftermath of this strike throughout our conversation, and I know some of them are going to be hard to hear.

LONSDORF: Yeah.

KELLY: Saying that, tell us more what we know, what details of this airstrike.

LONSDORF: Yeah. So it happened yesterday evening in western Rafah, which has become very densely populated as people are fleeing from other parts of the city. The area where the strikes hit has become kind of a tent city essentially, full of a bunch of makeshift shelters which, you know, offer very little protection and are really flammable. I managed to reach a volunteer emergency doctor nearby last night, and he described people being burned alive in tents and just horrific injuries. He told me it was the worst day he'd seen in Gaza in the 6 1/2 weeks he's been there.

KELLY: Gosh, just awful. One of our colleagues was actually able to get to the scene of the strike this morning. This is our producer, Anas Baba. What did he tell you?

LONSDORF: Yeah. Anas was nearby where this happened last night, and he said he heard the strikes. And so this morning he went, and he sent us some voice memos of what he was seeing. He said the rubble was still smoldering, and the winds, you know, were sweeping through, and they were reigniting the flames. And he described a young girl picking through the rubble.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: After the airstrike, there is tons of the family storage - that they were storing macaroni and some rice, which is, at the moment, totally burned. A young girl here is sitting among all of this scrap, and she's just searching beyond the rice and the macaroni.

LONSDORF: So these young girls are searching for food. And remember; people are really, really hungry there. Famine is a real risk. And she was searching for food in this area where he said he could see bits of burned flesh and human remains. And I just want to point out one other thing that's been really sticking with me today as I've been thinking about all this. You know, water is in extremely short supply in Gaza. In some areas, people are surviving on well below the minimum daily need. So, you know, that's a real challenge for putting out a fire.

KELLY: Well, I want to remind people of another thing, which is that these last few weeks, we have been reporting on how Rafah has become the center of this war. Rafah was a place that people were told to flee to. That was back in December. So what are what are Israeli officials saying about this strike?

LONSDORF: Well, the Israeli military issued a statement saying that, you know, they would be launching an investigation into this strike, which is pretty rare. But they also claimed that they killed two top Hamas officials in this attack. You know, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave an address today calling the strike a, quote, "tragic mishap" and reiterating the investigation. Yesterday here in Tel Aviv, several rockets launched from Gaza were shot down in the skies overhead by Israel's Iron Dome defense system. Israel said those rockets came from Rafah. So even though the ICJ has ruled that Israel stop its military operations there, Israel says it's defending itself and has also been claiming that it's been doing so in a targeted way to limit civilian casualties. Today many world leaders are saying that this strike certainly puts that into question.

KELLY: Kat, I want to circle back 'cause I can't get that picture out of my head now of that girl who was looking for food, like, going through scorched rice and macaroni. She was so desperate. What else can you tell us about the humanitarian situation there in Rafah and the rest of Gaza?

LONSDORF: Yeah. It's really, really bad. The Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt had become the main artery for aid into Gaza during this war, but Israel took control of and closed that crossing earlier this month, so aid really slowed to a trickle afterwards. There are other crossings for aid to enter, including that much-talked-about pier that the U.S. has built, but there's just not enough coming through. The flow of aid is ramping up after the U.S., Egypt and Israel reached a deal to reroute the aid that was stuck in Rafah in through a different crossing. But people are just really, really desperate.

KELLY: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv. Thank you, Kat.

LONSDORF: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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