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With no cease-fire in Gaza, U.S. goes around Israeli roadblocks to get more aid in

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Around the world, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is beginning, and the fighting in Gaza goes on without a cease-fire that the United States and many others had hoped for by now. So let's get an update from our correspondents in the region. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv. NPR's Aya Batrawy is in Dubai and has been following events in Gaza. Welcome to you both.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Good morning.

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DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hey, what's it like in Gaza?

BATRAWY: I mean, this is Ramadan, right? It's a time where people fast, families come together. They have these large dinners, these large feasts in the evening, they pray all night. And it's nothing like that for people in Gaza right now. You have around 2 million people or more displaced, living in tents. They don't have clean running water, electricity, even washrooms, and people are still facing airstrikes.

There is no safe place in Gaza for civilians as Hamas also continues to fight in these densely populated areas. And in the north of Gaza, the situation is even worse because the U.N. says people there are facing the risk of famine. And this is an area cut off by Israeli checkpoints. There's very little aid reaching people there. And that is where NPR spoke to Alaa Matar, a 34-year-old father in Gaza City. Let's have a listen to what he says.

ALAA MATAR: (Non-English language spoken).

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BATRAWY: So he says, like, he has kids. They need milk. They need food. They need diapers. They need medicine. They need everything, and he cannot afford any of it. He says, I don't know what this Ramadan is going to bring. And he says, at this point, you know, death is more merciful than this bitter life that they're living.

INSKEEP: Aya, the terms of a cease-fire in Gaza would seem obvious from the outside. They stop shooting for a while, Israel releases some prisoners, Hamas releases some hostages. So what makes this hard?

BATRAWY: This is about the long term. You know, this cease-fire is really seen as the first building block of what could come next, you know, ending the war - post-war Gaza. And so what the U.S. wants is to introduce a six-week humanitarian pause in the fighting that could be extended with more talks. During that pause, like you said, Israeli hostages would be released, a number of Palestinian prisoners would be released, more aid enters into Gaza. But Hamas is holding these hostages as a tool of pressure.

They want to see with their release an end to the war. That is their top demand. And they're not going to, you know, relinquish that demand just because Ramadan started. But the U.S. hasn't guaranteed a permanent end to the war. They haven't called for that. And Israel hasn't agreed to that, either. You know, Israel says it will only agree to a six-week pause to free hostages. So these are very complex talks and they are being mediated by Egypt and Qatar.

INSKEEP: Let's go over to Daniel Estrin who is in Israel. And Daniel, I'll just note - there are Muslims around the world who are noting this holiday while the war goes on. Does that increase tensions outside of Gaza?

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ESTRIN: It does, especially in Jerusalem, Steve. That is where the holy site, revered by Muslims as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is. It's revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. And especially on Fridays during the month of Ramadan, there are special prayers that draw tens of thousands of Palestinians worshipping at that spot, and violence has erupted there in recent years when Palestinians perceive that Israel is encroaching on the site. Now, the far-right wing of the Israeli government has called for severe restrictions on access for Palestinians to that site. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually decided not to do that out of concerns that it could provoke violence.

We did already last night, apparently, see that the police prevented younger, male worshippers from entering that mosque compound. There is footage of police using batons to beat back some Palestinians outside the compound. So there are fears that that kind of violence can really spread. And, you know, already, the Israeli army has boosted its presence in the occupied West Bank - just a sign of those fears of tensions.

INSKEEP: In the absence of the cease-fire that the United States would like, what is the U.S. doing?

BATRAWY: Well, Steve, the U.S. this weekend sent an Army vessel for the Mediterranean. It's part of Biden's plan to build a temporary pier that could unload humanitarian aid through sea routes to Northern Gaza, but that could take weeks. And aid groups say that recent airdrops by the U.S. and other countries to literally drop food with parachutes from the sky to people in Northern Gaza is a last resort.

It is not enough to stave off the risk of famine. Children are already dying there because of a lack of enough food and milk, according to Gaza's health ministry, and aid groups say, look, the fastest way to get aid in is for Israel to open up more land crossings. And Israel hasn't done that. But we are seeing Biden, you know, speak out more publicly on the need to get aid in and taking measures like these in coordination with Israel.

INSKEEP: I want to hear a little bit from President Biden, who gave an interview over the weekend to Jonathan Capehart of MSNBC. And this section that I want to play, I think is revealing because it seems to suggest the tension that President Biden faces here. He would like to influence Israel in a particular direction, but he also wants to be completely supportive of Israel. And that led to this exchange. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN CAPEHART: What is your red line with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Do you have a red line? For instance, would invasion of Rafah, which you have urged him not to do, would that be a red line?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It is a red line, but I'm never going to leave Israel. The defense of Israel is still critical. So there's no red line I'm going to cut off all weapons so they don't have the Iron Dome to protect them. They don't have - but there's red lines that if it crosses in they continue - you cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead as a consequence of going after.

INSKEEP: Daniel, how is Netanyahu responding?

ESTRIN: Netanyahu is deflecting a lot of criticism that Biden aired there in that interview. I mean, another thing that Biden said was that Israel is hurting itself by killing so many civilians in Gaza. Netanyahu says that the president is, quote, "wrong" if he is suggesting that Netanyahu's policies are against Israelis wishes. He says the war in Gaza is supported by a majority of Israelis, which is true, according to public opinion polls. But on the question of an Israeli operation in Rafah, you know, Israeli military analysts don't see that as being something imminent.

The U.S., of course, doesn't want to see it happen. Any kind of big, military operation now, Steve, can threaten the potential for a hostage release deal. And, you know, Israel's military assets really are focused outside of Gaza right now.

INSKEEP: OK. Interesting. So Netanyahu says I'm still going into Rafah, but they haven't gone into Rafah as the U.S. asked them to hold off. So Aya, where does that leave Gaza?

BATRAWY: Well, that leaves us with no cease-fire in place like they wanted - the Biden administration wanted before Ramadan, you know, no new land routes still into Gaza to get in aid, and all of this while we still have 100 Israeli hostages or so held in Gaza. And every day that passes, another 80 to 100 Palestinians are killed in airstrikes and the violence.

INSKEEP: NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv, thanks to you both.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Steve. 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.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.
Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.