Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crammed into the small southern Gaza border city of Rafah are being forced to contemplate being displaced once more as an Israeli offensive looms.
Nearly half of the population in Gaza, totaling 2.3 million people, have sought refuge in the border city. They are faced with a difficult decision: remain in the densely populated Rafah, which was home to 280,000 people, and await the attack, or take the risk of moving north through an area that is still experiencing conflict.
Tent settlements now cover vast expanses of land, including parts of Rafah’s cemeteries. Humanitarian workers have labeled the city a “crisis-ridden pressure cooker”, expressing concern that a major Israeli attack on such a densely populated area could result in high numbers of civilian casualties and potentially constitute a violation of international law.
Although there have been consistent Israeli attacks on Rafah during the war, the bombing and presence of Israeli soldiers have gradually moved closer to the city. The southern border of Rafah is defined by the predominantly closed border with Egypt.
Concerns about a potential Israeli attack have intensified due to recent strikes near Rafah. This includes the shelling of the western road into the city by Israeli gunboats on Wednesday.
According to Raed al-Nims, the media director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza, this week’s mood is one of fear due to the potential expansion of the ground operation in Rafah.
The increasing feeling of hopelessness has been emphasized by the fact that a few individuals who attempted to depart from the city to regions like Nuseirat in central Gaza in the past few days have been unable to communicate with their loved ones.
Several families interviewed by the Guardian this week expressed their intention to wait for an evacuation order from the Israeli military, in the hopes that it would provide a safe route for them to leave in case of a large-scale attack.
Due to the shortage of food, illness, and unsanitary living conditions, many are feeling hopeless about the impending attack. Some have even reported that their children are too scared to sleep due to the approaching conflict.
Moamen Jarad, 25, who had escaped from northern Gaza to Rafah at the start of the conflict, stated that he would relocate if the Israelis decided to invade Rafah. He mentioned that he was originally from Beit Lahiya and was considering moving further north, if feasible. He also added that Israel would inform them of the designated relocation areas.
Majed Rezeq, 46, explained the difficulty that everyone faces when contemplating leaving. He shared, “I would retreat to our residence in the northern part of Gaza. My entire family wants to go back, but it is impossible. The route is completely blocked. If there was a safe way to relocate to another area, whether through central Gaza or Khan Younis, I would do it. However, it is too risky and even more perilous than our current situation here.”
Officials from Israel have stated that they will work together with Egypt before launching a ground attack in Rafah. Egypt is growing more concerned about the possibility of an attack on their border and will look for ways to move most of the displaced individuals to the north.
It is unclear how the current situation is being addressed. More than half of Gaza is under evacuation orders from the Israeli military, and there is ongoing fighting and significant damage to homes and civilian infrastructure.
According to reports, Israel has announced that conflict will persist in certain areas of northern Gaza, as Hamas members and leaders have resurfaced in the region within the last two weeks. Previously, the IDF had declared the conclusion of their operations in the north and a reduction of their military presence.
The concern that Rafah may be targeted by Israel is based on statements made by high-ranking Israeli leaders, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Despite the loss of over 27,000 Palestinian lives, Israel has not yet been successful in accomplishing its goals in the conflict with Hamas.
Despite Israel’s claims of successfully weakening Hamas, the conflict continues without any proof that top leaders Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif have been eliminated. Only one hostage has been freed by Israel, while others have been released through talks with Hamas.
According to Israel, Sinwar and other top Hamas leaders are currently located in the southern area near Rafah. Gallant stated that their forces will also target areas in central Gaza and the south where they have not yet engaged in battle, specifically targeting the remaining Hamas members in Rafah. He warned that any terrorists hiding in Rafah will meet the same fate as those in Khan Younis and Gaza.
During his televised statement, Gallant claimed that Israel no longer considers Sinwar to be in control of Hamas. He stated that Sinwar is preoccupied with his own safety and is no longer directing the group’s operations. Instead, he has become a wanted terrorist.
Recent statements from officials have indicated that in addition to its primary objective, an attack by Israel on Rafah would also serve to gain control over the Philadelphi route, a narrow road made of sand that runs along the border with Egypt.
Israel considers maintaining control over the 14km thoroughfare crucial in preventing Hamas from using tunnels to smuggle weapons from Egypt into Gaza. This would also grant Israel complete authority over entry points into Gaza.
Egypt vehemently opposes this aspiration, emphasizing that the path was established as a demilitarized zone according to the 2005 agreement known as the Philadelphi accord between Egypt and Israel, which was reached after Israel withdrew from Gaza. This agreement replaced a previous arrangement that had allowed Israel to patrol the path following the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
The increasing concerns surrounding an Israeli strike on Rafah have raised worries about the potential repercussions. The United Nations has highlighted the possibility of a significant number of civilian casualties.
According to Jens Laerke, a representative from the United Nations office responsible for coordinating humanitarian efforts, bombing densely populated areas without discrimination could potentially be considered a war crime under international law. During a briefing in Geneva, he stressed the importance of preventing intensified fighting in Rafah, as it could result in a significant number of civilian casualties. It is crucial that all measures are taken to prevent this outcome.
Ashraf, a 40-year-old Palestinian who has been displaced in Rafah, stated that they are waiting for instructions from Israel on where to go. Their ultimate destination is Rafah and they have no intention of leaving the Gaza Strip. They are determined to either return to their homes or stay and potentially risk their lives.