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Israel's military is pushing on with its Rafah offensive after strike killed 45

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Israeli military operations have intensified in Rafah in southern Gaza. That's after an Israeli airstrike on Sunday night hit near a camp of displaced people, starting a fire that killed at least 45 and wounded hundreds of others. The area had not been given evacuation orders. For more, we're joined by NPR's Kat Lonsdorf. She is in Tel Aviv. Hey, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, tell me the latest in Rafah. What has been going on there since those horrific scenes from Sunday night?

LONSDORF: Yeah. Well, it definitely hasn't calmed down. We're told you could hear explosions all night. And to give you a sense of what that sounds like, here's one example. Our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, was in western Rafah last night, and he just set out his recorder all night overnight to capture what he was hearing. And here's what that sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBS EXPLODING)

LONSDORF: And it just goes on and on like that for seven hours - blast after blast after blast. One person on the ground we talked to in western Rafah described being able to see Israeli tanks from where he was, which would mean that the Israeli military has expanded their operations there. We know that airstrikes have continued in general in the area, but it's hard to track down exactly where they're hitting. Comms are really difficult with people on the ground, and the Israeli military won't give us exact locations when we ask.

We did manage to talk to a member of the civil defense in that part of Rafah. That's a group that responds to airstrikes and pulls people out of the rubble, things like that. He told us that since Sunday's attack, they've counted around a hundred other people killed there. And I've been keeping in touch with an emergency doctor in the northwest part of the city. He told me that he's been hearing from his colleagues that a strike happened near a medical facility in Al Mawasi. We've been working to confirm that. But if it's true, that's an area that's been designated as a humanitarian zone by Israeli officials. Israel denies there was an airstrike there.

KELLY: What about more broadly? What is Israel saying about its operations?

LONSDORF: Well, yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Sunday's airstrike in Rafah a, quote, "tragic mistake." Today Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari held a press conference. He called Sunday's strike, quote, "precise" and said that two missiles were shot to target a Hamas compound, which, by Israel's own admission, was about 600 feet away from this camp for displaced people. Hagari said the fire was lit by, quote, "unforeseen circumstances."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL HAGARI: Despite our efforts to minimize civilian casualties during the strike, the fire that broke out was unexpected and unintended. This is a devastating incident which we did not expect.

LONSDORF: And he went on to reiterate that there's an investigation into the incident. And still today, the Israeli military put out a statement acknowledging that operations in Rafah are ongoing. You know, Israel says those operations are in self-defense. Hamas did take responsibility for a rocket attack that was launched toward here in Tel Aviv this past weekend. And Israel said those rockets came from Rafah. Israel also says over and over again that its strikes are precise and targeted. But many world leaders have been questioning that, especially after Sunday's strike killed so many civilians.

KELLY: Speaking of world leaders, what is the U.S. saying exactly? - because, of course, the Biden administration has been urging its ally, Israel, to practice restraint.

LONSDORF: Right, yeah. A U.S. administration official told NPR today that the U.S. is, quote, "deeply concerned" about Sunday's strike and expressed confidence that Israel would carry out that investigation into the incident. You know, President Biden, like you said, has warned Israel against a major ground operation in this densely populated area. But that official NPR talked to today said that this airstrike, while tragic, is not an example of the kind of military operation that Biden has said would be unacceptable. So this doesn't seem to cross that line for the administration.

KELLY: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv. Thanks.

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

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