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Israel's military response to the Hamas massacre appears to be expanding


For nearly three weeks, Israel has been pounding the Gaza Strip with airstrikes after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and killed at least 1,400 people, then took more than 200 hostages, including children, captive. And now Israel's military response to that massacre appears to be expanding. It said its troops and tanks raided the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to, quote, "prepare the battlefield." Already, upward of 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than 2,600 of those killed are children.

Arab leaders and the U.N. secretary-general are calling for a cease-fire to stop the loss of civilian life and alleviate a humanitarian crisis. The European Union is also calling for humanitarian pauses for aid to get in. Meanwhile, Palestinian civilians in Gaza are trapped. And the border crossings controlled by Israel and Egypt are closed. Joining me to talk about the ongoing situation is Michael Herzog. He's Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Good morning, Ambassador.

MICHAEL HERZOG: Good morning.

FADEL: So our Pentagon correspondent has been speaking to American officials who say there's concern that there isn't an achievable military strategy going into a possible ground invasion. Do you have an achievable military strategy for this ground invasion?

HERZOG: The short answer is yes, this is well-thought-out and well-prepared. We're not acting here out of rage, even though Israelis are filled with emotions following the atrocities of October 7. Given the fact that Hamas launched an all-out war against the state of Israel, we are determined to destroy the Hamas war machine so that they cannot threaten us again the way they did on October 7. We are preparing a ground operation which is designed to uproot them and their military infrastructure in Gaza. And we believe it's achievable. It is not easy. It's challenging. They've been hiding in densely civilian-populated areas, which is why we call on the population to move to humanitarian areas. They hide in tunnels, we know, but I think we have no other choice. And we believe we can do it.

FADEL: Is Israel considering a humanitarian pause? You mentioned humanitarian areas, but we've spoken to a lot of people who've gone to areas in the south and still lost family members in strikes, a lot of civilian loss. Is Israel considering a humanitarian pause to let aid in and allow some civilians to leave to avoid more loss of civilian life?

HERZOG: First, we are allowing aid in. It's been 5 or 6 days that every day, trucks went in...

FADEL: But it's just a few - it's a few dozen trucks, but more is needed.

HERZOG: Yeah, but we are very mindful of the humanitarian situation. We called on preparation to move to the south. And we are working with the U.N. to create humanitarian zones and provide humanitarian solutions. We allowed citizens to go out. Hamas prevented them more than once. They were already in the crossings, and Hamas wouldn't let them out. So it's their responsibility.

FADEL: So you have made an agreement for allowing U.S. citizens and European citizens out?

HERZOG: Absolutely. Absolutely, yes. We will allow them out. But Hamas is preventing them. It's been preventing them for about a week now.

FADEL: OK. Well, we were speaking to American citizens on the ground who say there's nobody at the gate. The gate just needs to open at the Rafah Crossing. They've gone back and forth four times. So what's the holdup?

HERZOG: We are in close touch with the U.S. government. We agreed for them to leave. There's no reason why they should stay there. And Hamas is preventing them. That's a fact. You can check it with the U.S. officials.

FADEL: There are 2.3 million people inside the Gaza Strip, civilians. If they can't leave to get out of danger, are there other plans for humanitarian corridors for civilians that don't have foreign passports?

HERZOG: First of all, hundreds of thousands moved to the south, where it's much more safe. The fact of the matter is that Hamas is trying to prevent people from leaving because they want to use them as human shields. But I think those who left were in a much better position, together with U.N. organizations who are operating on the ground to provide to them humanitarian solutions. And we are working on that every day.

FADEL: Ambassador...

HERZOG: While we talk about the humanitarian situation, let me mention that there's another big humanitarian issue which nobody talks about. This is over 200 hostages. This is a humanitarian issue, including children, elderly.


HERZOG: Who's talking about them? Who takes 1-year-old kid as a hostage? Who's talking about them?

FADEL: We report on them constantly here on NPR. And I would like to ask you, with a ground invasion - it seems imminent. What are the plans for the hostage - there has been four releases? Are you expecting more releases? And what is the strategy there?

HERZOG: We welcome every release. We are working on this as a high priority. I think it's better not be discussed in public because this type of issue is something that has to be dealt with quietly. And while we welcome each and every release, we remind everybody that Hamas still holds over 200 hostages. And we hold them accountable for any harm coming the way of any of the hostages.

FADEL: With respect, Ambassador, you mentioned the request for civilians to move south. And we have done a lot of reporting in which families went to places they believed were safe in the south and then lost family members. That includes the Al Jazeera reporter Wael Dahdouh. Where is safe for people if the border crossings aren't open and these areas have also been hit?

HERZOG: There are hundreds of thousands of people in the south. And most of them are safe. And we're working on a daily basis to provide additional solutions to them because we do not want them to be trapped in a war zone. That's the unfortunate situation we are at right now.

FADEL: Michael Herzog serves as Israel's ambassador to the United States. Thank you for your time, Ambassador.

HERZOG: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "FOUR HANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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