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As Israel continues airstrikes on Gaza, Palestinians look back on a painful history

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Israel rained down paper leaflets across parts of Gaza's north, telling residents to leave their homes. The order declared Gaza City an active battlefield. Israel has been bombarding the Gaza Strip since last weekend's cross-border attacks by Hamas militants that killed more than 1,300 people in Israel. Since that attack, more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, nearly 9,000 wounded by Israeli bombardment. Entire neighborhoods have been turned to rubble. More than 2 million people are essentially trapped in the Gaza Strip with no way out. NPR's Aya Batrawy is in Jerusalem. Aya, thanks for being with us.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: What do you hear from people inside of Gaza?

BATRAWY: I've been talking to them all week. It's been sheer terror and trauma. They tell me the sounds of the bombs this time are different. Instead of the bomb taking out one home, for example, it'll take out that home and all the homes around it. And even Israel has said that this war is different and that the response will be harder and harsher than Hamas has ever seen. But this latest evacuation order, it has been condemned by U.N. organizations and international aid groups on the ground. They say this is impossible, dangerous, outrageous. The U.N. humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, said on social media site X that this order by Israel for 1 million people to evacuate, quote, "defies the rules of war."

I spoke with our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, who also had to leave with his family. He told me scenes of mothers carrying their babies and walking by foot for miles, fathers walking with kids on their back, young children having to walk for miles and miles, all of them trying to head south. So many hospitals in the north, including the biggest, Al-Shifa, cannot evacuate. People are on life support, and there's a steady stream of wounded and dead from continuous Israeli airstrikes. And some people have been using those hospitals also as shelters. And some of the families heeding these orders and heading south were killed in Israeli airstrikes on their cars yesterday. And I'd just like to emphasize the Palestinian Health Ministry says a third of all those killed in Gaza this week have been children.

One woman I reached in Gaza City said she couldn't leave. She has no car, and she can't reach her husband. She's running out of baby formula and diapers. I also reached another person, a medical student. Her name is Tasnim Ahad (ph). Her home was destroyed this week and bombed. And now her family is being displaced again. But they don't have anywhere to go. Again, Gaza is under full siege. There's no way out, and there's nothing coming in as of this moment, including water, food now for five days and no fuel. So the territory is without electricity, and even the hospital generators are now on just a few days left of fuel. So with all of this, let's listen to how Tasnim Ahad describes her situation.

TASNIM AHAD: You drink your water, or you wash your face and brush your teeth. Brushing your teeth is become a luxury for us. You feel like your mouth - it's like a desert, needs a little bit of water just to make your mouth - I don't know how to describe this because I'm very thirsty now.

SIMON: Aya, what about the possibility of a humanitarian corridor so that some people could leave?

BATRAWY: Well, there is a buildup of international pressure - at least Arab countries are saying that that needs to happen. We've seen a buildup of humanitarian aid trucks at the Egyptian side of the Gaza border crossing with Egypt. The U.S. also estimates there are up to 600 Americans in Gaza, so there's a lot of diplomatic efforts to see how they can get out. And maybe even Egypt could take some wounded, but Egypt does not want to open the borders for all Palestinians to leave and possibly face permanent displacement.

On the other side of the border of Gaza's border to the north, there are some 300,000 Israeli soldiers on reserve duty now for a possible ground invasion. And across the country, Israelis are shaken by these attacks. They're asking how this could happen. There is grief. But there are diverse views. Some want to see Gaza wiped out, and others say that is not going to help.

I spoke with Mahmoud Muna. His family, who are Palestinian, owned the Educational Bookshop. It is nestled in this old complex in Jerusalem that once was home to the Ottomans. And in this ancient city of Jerusalem, of course, you have Al-Aqsa mosque compound, ground that is sacred to Muslims and also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. So we spoke surrounded by hundreds of books written by Israelis and Palestinians, people from all over the world.

So I'm seeing titles like "The One-State Condition." I'm seeing a lot of books by Noam Chomsky. I'm seeing books titled "Arafat's War," "Palestine: Matters Of Truth And Justice," "Divided Jerusalem," "Records Of Dispossession," I mean, and even a book, "On Antisemitism." That's the title, "On Antisemitism." These shelves really tell just how much has been said already, and yet still, here we are after all these words.

MAHMOUD MUNA: I think the most tragic about this conflict is actually that it encapsulate everything we have seen in the last 75 years in a week. We're seeing Jewish trauma, and we're seeing Palestinian trauma as paying the price for that. We're seeing Palestinians suffering. We're seeing Palestinian refugees being made again. We're seeing the issue of '67, the issues of '48. We're seeing antisemitism. We're seeing media control. We're seeing wars on narrative. We're seeing American imperialism, and we're seeing the support of the West to Israel. Every element of the Palestine-Israeli conflict over the last 75 years is suddenly interplaying in this conflict that we're living today.

BATRAWY: And being here in Jerusalem, the - I want to call it ground zero for the fight for identity, history, territorial claims, what's the significance of this city at this time?

MUNA: The Palestine-Israeli conflict is - always has been about people and land together. People are the refugees, and the land is - the most important one is Jerusalem. So - and again, we're seeing both of them as kind of interconnected in one way now. And we're seeing the war over the land, particularly in Jerusalem and the areas around.

BATRAWY: And just stepping back for a second from Jerusalem and just looking at, like, from the sky, really high up, what do you make of all of this?

MUNA: I don't know. It's a difficult call. In one way, it's - looking at this from the above, it looks like - it's not like a circle. It's more like a spiral, I think. And I'm trying to see where the center of this spiral is. In one way, we have seen all of this before, but in one way, we have not, or at least the scale of it is bigger and huge. The trauma and the disastrous effect of it and the loss of life is bigger.

SIMON: Aya, you were speaking there with Mahmoud Muna, a Palestinian bookseller in Jerusalem. What do you hear there in Israel about how this round of conflict might end?

BATRAWY: Well, Israel's government says it ends with Hamas destroyed, disarmed and unable to govern. Now, how that happens and what that looks like is unclear. But one thing everyone seems to acknowledge is that this time, things have changed and that it will take time and that many more people will die.

SIMON: NPR's Aya Batrawy in Jerusalem. Thank you.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Scott. 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.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.