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Exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Hamas' hostages continues through cease-fire

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today Hamas freed 12 more hostages who were seized in its deadly assault on Israel on October 7. This comes as the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas enters its fifth day and as the ongoing exchange of Palestinian prisoners for hostages continues. Israel did report some fighting today, several soldiers lightly wounded, but the pause in fighting does appear to be largely holding. So what comes next, and where does this leave the conflict? Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio with me to try and take on those questions. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What does come next?

BOWMAN: Well, Israeli officials say they have two goals - get the hostages back and destroy Hamas. So whenever the fighting pause ends to release hostages, then the shooting will begin again, this time in the southern part of Gaza, where there are some 2 million people.

KELLY: Two million people. OK, and the fighting would move south because so many of those people have fled northern Gaza 'cause it's been devastated by Israeli strikes.

BOWMAN: That's right. And according to Palestinian officials, the death toll now in Gaza is some 14,000 killed, most of them women and children. So the administration, members of Congress, have been increasingly worried about the massive death toll from this war. Israel says it's taking steps to prevent civilian casualties but points out that Hamas is using civilians as human shields. So they say it's a complex battlefield.

Now, retired and active-duty American military officers I talk with say, listen. There's no way the U.S. would have resorted to some of the powerful strikes Israel has mounted in northern Gaza, such as dropping that 2,000-pound bomb in a refugee area to destroy a tunnel complex. And U.S. officials have been pressing the Israelis to take more care. One senior officer I spoke with said Israel has to think beyond the tactical military moves of destroying Hamas and look at the bigger picture. What's the future of Gaza? What happens to those 2 million Palestinians inside Gaza? What about world public opinion that is increasingly opposed to Israel's harsh tactics?

KELLY: Back up for a second, Tom. You just said U.S. officials are counseling Israel to take more care. What does that actually look like? Do we know what they're actually saying?

BOWMAN: Well, actually, we do now. Senior administration officials had a conference call with reporters last night. And they said there's an understanding that a different military campaign has to be conducted by the Israelis in the South, where, again, most of those 2 million residents have fled. The U.S. is saying that Israel has to be careful not to conduct military operations around the U.N.-supported shelters or around power and water facilities. So I asked an Israeli military officer, who briefed reporters at the embassy in Washington today, will the Israeli military operation in the South be different, more cautious? Here's Lieutenant-Colonel Amnon Shefler.

AMNON SHEFLER: We do not aim in any time, at any point, at civilians. We're trying to mitigate that in the best way we can. And that's why we've developed really the most - I don't think there is any other army in the world that has developed these kind of mechanisms in order to deal with these complicated situations.

BOWMAN: So you can see he didn't really answer the question. And when I pressed him, he said, well, these are political decisions. But, again, administration officials continue to worry about this high civilian death toll.

KELLY: And just briefly, Tom, on the question of civilians, there is supposed to be more aid heading into the southern part of Gaza. Give us a quick update.

BOWMAN: Yeah. More aid is flowing in from the border crossing with Egypt, the only crossing open. U.S. military, by the way, started flying in planeloads of food, medicine and winter clothing. But here's the problem, Mary Louise. About 240 trucks are now coming into Gaza daily. Officials say you need closer to 400 daily.

KELLY: So they would need to double it. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR ASHTON SONG, "NICOLE") 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.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.