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A view from both sides: A closer look at the war between Israel and Hamas militants

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The NPR team covering the war between Israel and Hamas includes our colleague Leila Fadel, who we'll hear from elsewhere in the program, and also Daniel Estrin, who is in Tel Aviv today and has been with us almost continuously. Daniel, will you reset the scene for us? What's happening right now?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Yeah, let me just orient you on the map. I'm in Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast. South of here is the Gaza Strip, just about southwest of the country. And around the Gaza Strip are Israeli communities that have been attacked starting Saturday morning as Hamas militants coming in on paragliders and motorcycles. You've heard all of that.

And even today, we were hearing reports that there were just a couple more firefights between Hamas militants and Israeli troops in a couple of communities there. But Israel says it killed many hundreds of Gaza militants inside Israel. It says there are no more infiltrations from Gaza and that Israel has nearly completed the evacuation of Israeli civilians around the border area. Of course, a lot of concerns about hostages inside Gaza.

INSKEEP: No more infiltrations, meaning that from the Israeli point of view, they have regained control of all Israeli territory. Is that what that means?

ESTRIN: Well, the army says mostly regained control.

INSKEEP: Ah, OK.

ESTRIN: More or less is the quote.

INSKEEP: Understood, understood. So I know that you were down in that region last evening. What did you see?

ESTRIN: Yeah, we stopped at a highway rest stop close to the areas that have been - that were invaded by Hamas. You know, we saw the McDonald's and all the restaurants at that stop were closed. But it was this hive of activity, Israelis coming from across the country to help in any way they can. And I recorded along the way.

We are now driving in between two cars. It's a volunteer convoy of armed Israelis, a father and three sons. They are rushing into the town of Sderot right along the Gaza border to rescue families, Israelis who have been stuck in their safe rooms in their homes as the attacks have been unfolding. And as we're driving, we're seeing now huge flames and plume of smoke. Here it is. Look right there in front of us.

We pass an open field in flames where it looks like a rocket has fallen. And we enter the town of Sderot that's being emptied.

We just passed a car that was smashed into an electric pole.

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: We stop outside an apartment building, and a family rushes into the volunteers' cars.

There's a mom and dad and three daughters. They're really stressed.

We don't have time to talk. They're rushing into the car, and we speed back to the rest stop where I see the young girls finally smile. They're relieved to get out. And at this rest stop, I hear what is on Israeli's minds, routine concerns and some of their thoughts on the war. I run into a familiar face, Ronit Sela. She is Israeli. For 10 years, she worked for an organization advocating Palestinian rights in Jerusalem. But now she's one of the volunteer drivers rescuing Israelis trying to escape.

RONIT SELA: When Israeli Jews know that I help Palestinians, they often view me as somebody who chose a side. And as a human rights activist, I can say that I chose humanity. Right now, there are families with kids and disabled people who are just in panic. And they need to be evacuated to a safe place. So for me, it's a continuation. It's not opposites, it's one of the same.

ESTRIN: And we also meet a 64-year-old man in uniform, Dudek Leni Adel (ph). He's volunteering as an army reservist. And he went to a community that had been invaded by Hamas militants. He went to help the animals.

DUDEK LENI ADEL: To rescue cows, milking cows that didn't been milked for the last three days because there is a war. They didn't have food.

ESTRIN: It's a community that depends on the cows for its livelihood. Keeping the cows alive means keeping hope alive that the Israeli residents can return when the war ends. And I asked him how he's feeling about the war.

ADEL: Feelings now are in the sides. We don't feel now, but it's terrible. It's terrible what happened, terrible and unbelievable.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ESTRIN: He had also rescued his nephew's dog, Pluto (ph). The dog had been locked up for more than two days at home. The home had come under Hamas gunfire.

AMIR TIBON: We filled the entire bathtub with water and we left a whole sack of dog food open for him. And we told him we'll come back to take him.

ESTRIN: That's the dog's owner, Amir Tibon. He's an Israeli newspaper journalist. He is relieved to be back with his dog, and he's thankful to his uncle.

TIBON: He did an amazing thing today, because he saved the cows and he saved the dog, but he saved the kibbutz.

ESTRIN: Look at all the helpers here. Isn't that amazing?

TIBON: It is. But there's one organization that is not really being helpful right now, it's the government. Where are they? We don't understand what's going on. I mean, this is a huge failure of the government. We have to fight, we have to win, but this will not be forgotten. What happened here is the biggest failure in the history of the state of Israel.

ESTRIN: So at this rest stop, you see the spirit of Israelis rushing to help in any way they can.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS WHIRRING)

ESTRIN: And military helicopters are flying above. Soldiers are gathering there at that rest stop on their way to the Gaza border for a potential ground invasion, not knowing if they'll come back alive. And we see one religious Jewish man offering soldiers blessings and hugs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He puts his hands on their heads, and he recites a biblical blessing - may God bless you and protect you and bring you peace. And one by one, he gives the soldiers a long hug.

INSKEEP: Powerful reporting from our colleague Daniel Estrin, who was near the scene of the fighting in southwest Israel last evening. He's now back in Tel Aviv and still on the line and Daniel, of course, continuing to report. So what are you hearing, Daniel, from the other side of the battle lines that would be inside Gaza?

ESTRIN: Yeah, you know, I've been working the phones because the Gaza border is sealed off. Journalists like me cannot get in. Now Egypt's border with Gaza is closed, so Palestinians cannot escape Gaza at all. Over 180,000 Palestinians have fled their homes. According to the United Nations, they're seeking shelter inside Gaza, in U.N. facilities, even in the main hospital. And our producer, Anas Baba, in Gaza met one woman, Mahmoud Kolak (ph). She was amid the crowds of Palestinians seeking shelter at the hospital, and here's what she told us.

MAHMOUD KOLAK: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She's saying, no, no, no, no, no, this area is not safe for all the people here, not safe from Israeli attacks. She said there's no safe place in Gaza. And, Steve, it is a shocking death toll so far. Officials say at least 900 Israelis were killed and more than 700 Palestinians in Gaza were killed.

INSKEEP: Daniel, I just want to make sure that I'm clear on this. Prime Minister Netanyahu told Palestinian civilians you better flee because we are coming for Hamas. There's nowhere for them to go, or at least not much of a place they can go.

ESTRIN: Nowhere for them to escape Gaza. There are places like the U.N. facilities, but as this woman has just said, they don't feel safe anywhere.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin continuing to report for us from Israel. Daniel, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE MCEVOY AND SUNSHINE RECORDER'S "RED") 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 is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.