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Israel military evacuates Gaza's largest hospital

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been a night of intense fighting in Gaza. Palestinian health officials say dozens of people have been killed. After taking control of Gaza's biggest hospital, Israel now says it's evacuating the facility. Thousands of patients, doctors and evacuees have been holed up there with no electricity and dwindling supplies and gun battles outside. The Israeli military accuses Hamas of operating in tunnels below the hospital. NPR's Lauren Frayer joins us now from Tel Aviv. Lauren, thanks for being with us.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Please tell us about the evacuation.

FRAYER: So Gaza health officials say patients and evacuees are leaving Al-Shifa Hospital, which has been a focal point of the war for weeks now. Israel says doctors invited them to evacuate people. Palestinian officials say they were ordered to. Telecom networks have come back up last night after Israel agreed to allow a very small amount of fuel to enter Gaza. And so NPR was able to reach someone inside a different hospital in northern Gaza. His name is Fadi Alwhidi. He's a freelance photographer. And a warning - you can hear the sound of explosions behind him as he spoke with NPR.

FADI ALWHIDI: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

FRAYER: He describes crowds of evacuees around him, all under heavy bombardment and artillery fire. He says apartment buildings have been burned there.

SIMON: That's in the north of Gaza. What about elsewhere?

FRAYER: Gaza health officials say at least two dozen people were killed in an airstrike in an apartment building in southern Gaza, too. And it's worth noting that that's where Israel has been telling people to flee to. NPR analyzed health ministry death tolls and mapped satellite data and found at least a third of deaths in Gaza are in an area that Israel had designated as safer for civilians. The Gaza Health Ministry's official death toll is about 11,500, but they haven't actually updated that in a few days, and they're struggling to count the dead themselves. Thousands of people are missing and may be under the rubble. And, Scott, it's not just Gaza. Israel says it conducted an airstrike in the West Bank today, too. And Palestinian ambulance officials confirmed several people killed there.

SIMON: Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu told NPR's Morning Edition yesterday that he intends to destroy Hamas and free the Israeli hostages that Hamas took. Any indication Israeli troops are getting closer to finding those hostages?

FRAYER: Well, Israel says its troops have recovered the bodies of two of those hostages in recent days near Al-Shifa Hospital. Netanyahu is under tremendous domestic pressure to find the other 238 hostages and bring them back alive. Polls show that Netanyahu's already-low approval ratings have plummeted since the war began. Here's what it sounds like on the outskirts of Jerusalem today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Thousands of Israelis are marching into Jerusalem today, demanding that the government do more to get the hostages freed. And being in Israel for the past several weeks, you see banners all over the country with the words bring them home.

SIMON: Officials from Qatar reportedly have been acting as mediators. Do we know anything about those talks?

FRAYER: Obviously, those negotiations are held with the utmost secrecy. But I spoke with a former Israeli hostage negotiator who's been in touch with both Hamas and Israeli officials. His name is Gershon Baskin. And he says Israel's willingness to allow fuel into Gaza, albeit in very small amounts in recent days, is significant.

GERSHON BASKIN: The entry of the fuel is actually part of the deal that's being negotiated. This is kind of a first step, what the Americans are pushing the Israelis to do in order to build confidence with Hamas that a deal can be made.

FRAYER: He says Israel will be looking at Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, likely starting with women and minors first, trying to figure out if there were any prisoner swap, who they could trade for these hostages in Gaza.

SIMON: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Tel Aviv. Thanks so much.

FRAYER: Thank you, 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.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.