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Ceasefire talks stall even as conditions in Gaza worsen


The holy month of Ramadan is expected to start on Monday. There were hopes for a cease-fire in Gaza but talks seemed to have stalled. This is raising fears of worsening conditions in Gaza, where more than 30,000 people have been killed, according to officials there. Joining us now from Jerusalem is NPR's Fatma Tanis. Fatma, thank you so much for being with us.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Please tell us what it looks like in Jerusalem there at the moment.

TANIS: Well, Scott, for Palestinians here, there's a lot of anticipation over what the coming month is going to look like. You know, there are concerns for Gaza if Israel decides to invade Rafah in the south, where most people in Gaza are huddled. There's an overall feeling of hopelessness for the war.

But, you know, they also have their own concerns here. Since the war began, Israel has imposed a lot of restrictions on Palestinian movement. They spend hours at checkpoints every day, and especially when it comes to accessing Al-Aqsa compound, which is one of the holiest sites for both Muslims and Jews. At the moment, Palestinians from the West Bank and men under the age of 40 are not allowed to go in without a special permit, and very few people can actually get those. They're generally afraid and uneasy.

Now, Israel says that it will allow access to everyone, as it usually does, at least during the first week of the holy month. And there's been some politics around that. Israel's far-right minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, had advocated for a near blanket ban on Palestinian worshippers. He was overruled. It seems that senior officials in Israel do not want to provoke further tensions during time of war.

SIMON: And Al-Aqsa has often been a flashpoint - hasn't it? - not just in Israel, on the Palestinian territories, but across the region.

TANIS: That's right. So Al-Aqsa compound, you know, includes the mosque, the iconic Dome of the Rock. There's museums and other institutions there. Now, with the Israeli government shift to the far right in recent years, there's been a slow shrinking of Palestinian spaces. I was actually there yesterday and saw something unusual. There was heavy presence of police, and they were standing close to the worshipping sites. They normally stand a bit further back. So there's a real fear among Palestinians that they won't be allowed to worship. And during Ramadan, that becomes a more sensitive issue.

Now, when you add that to the backdrop of the war in Gaza, any tensions could easily further inflame an already tense region, including in Iraq, where Iranian-backed militias have been attacking U.S. troops, and in the Red Sea, where Houthi rebels in Yemen have been firing missiles at international shipping and killed sailors this week.

SIMON: Let's now turn to Gaza. The United Nations says nearly 2 million people face starvation there. President Biden said in his State of the Union speech that the U.S. military will provide a floating harbor to ship aid in. What's been local reaction to that?

TANIS: Well, it's seen as a sign of growing frustration with Israel, not just in Washington, but among aid groups as well, that Israel is not prioritizing humanitarian aid and that Israeli officials don't understand the responsibility to help civilians. Now, Israel says it's not putting any limits on aid. Meanwhile, there's been mixed reaction to President Biden's announcement. You know, the harbor won't be ready for weeks. Longer term, it could make a difference. I spoke to Jamie McGoldrick. He's the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories. Here he is.

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: Any supplementary possibility of bringing in aid through either airdrops or by sea is helpful. But the main part of it has to be done by road. That's the only way we can deliver bulk and at scale to populations inside Gaza, especially in the north.

TANIS: So, Scott, it won't help with the immediate crisis. Now, the U.N. says that children are starving to death as we speak, and it will get much, much worse if aid doesn't start flooding in immediately. And for that, McGoldrick says that Israel needs to open more border crossings and also allow aid groups access to secure roads in Gaza.

SIMON: NPR's Fatma Tanis in Jerusalem. Thanks so much.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.