Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah, is bursting at the seams. Almost the last place to be spared from an Israeli offensive so far, Rafah’s population has more than quintupled and Palestinians are flocking to escape the fighting. They are packed into apartments by the dozens. Sidewalks and once-empty lots are packed with tents packed with families.
Panic and desperation are rising after Israel said it intends to attack Rafah next. The estimated 1.5 million people taking refuge there – more than half of Gaza’s population – have nowhere to flee in the face of an offensive that has devastated large swathes of the urban landscape in the rest of the territory.
Some are simply tired of running.
“We are exhausted. Seriously, we’re exhausted. Israel can do whatever it wants. I’m sitting in my tent. I will die in my tent,” said Jihan al-Hawajri, who fled several times from the far north across the Gaza Strip and now lives with 30 relatives in a tent.
UN officials warn that an attack on Rafah will be catastrophic, with more than 600,000 children in the path of the attack. A move in and around the city could also lead to the collapse of the humanitarian aid system struggling to keep Gaza’s population alive.
Israel says it must take Rafah to ensure the destruction of Hamas. On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military to draw up an evacuation plan after the United States said it opposed an attack on Rafah unless measures were taken for its population.
“Carrying out such an operation right now with no planning and little thought in an area where there is shelter for a million people would be a disaster,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Thursday. “This is not something we would support”
Still, Washington has continued its staunch military and diplomatic support for Israel’s campaign even though Israel ignored its earlier calls to reduce civilian casualties. In response to those calls, Israel expanded its evacuation orders as its forces advanced south; However, the death toll in Gaza has continued to rise. Israel says Hamas is responsible for concentrating its forces in civilian areas.
But it is unclear where civilians would evacuate to. Rafah is trapped between Egypt to the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to the east and Israeli troops to the north. At the beginning of the war, Israel declared a rural area on the coast near Rafah, known as Muwasi, as a safe zone. But in recent weeks it has bombed the area and sent troops to seize parts of it.
Many Palestinians in Rafah came from Gaza City and other parts of the north and want to return there. But Israel has so far shown no willingness to allow a mass movement north, where it says its troops are largely in operational control but are still fighting groups of Hamas fighters.
Egypt has steadfastly refused any mass exodus of Palestinians to its soil, fearing that Israel will not allow them to return. Israel is unlikely to allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to take refuge in its own territory.
A large area of empty dunes between the town of Rafah and the sea is now built up with a dense tent city pitched by those who arrived over the past month.
When the winter rains come, the area turns to cold mud, which seeps into tents filled with extended families with children. Women hang bedding on clotheslines in the morning to keep it dry during the day and then put it on the floor at night to sleep.
In the city of Rafah itself, the main squares and streets are lined with tents. Other families fill classrooms at UN schools or crowd with relatives in apartments. Everyone is hungry and sick; Colds, coughs and intestinal disorders proliferate. Even simple medications are difficult to find and require an hours-long wait at the pharmacy.
The supply chain for everything from canned food and flour to diapers comes almost entirely from the trickle of aid trucks that Israel allows into Gaza for distribution by the UN and other humanitarian groups. Large makeshift open-air markets filled with people fill the main avenues, as many sell parts of the plots they receive.
With such limited supply, prices have skyrocketed. A chocolate bar that previously cost the equivalent of 50 cents now costs $5; a single egg can cost almost $1.
Groups of young people can sometimes be seen hanging around intersections, waiting for aid trucks to pass by. They jump on the backs and cut the ropes with knives to tear off bags of flour and sell them or give them to their families.
UN officials say 90% of Gaza’s population eats less than one meal a day, and a quarter of the population faces outright famine, mainly in the north, where Israeli restrictions have blocked many aid convoys. .
Rafah is the heart of the aid campaign, with trucks arriving from Egypt or a nearby Israeli crossing for distribution throughout the Gaza Strip.
“Any large-scale military operation among this population can only lead to additional layers of endless tragedy,” Philippe Lazzarini, director of UNRWA, the main agency leading the humanitarian effort, told The Associated Press.
Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas throughout the Gaza Strip after the group’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, in which about 1,200 people were killed and militants kidnapped about 250 hostages, more than 100 of whom remain. in captivity. Netanyahu said on Wednesday that preparations were underway for the army to advance toward Rafah, although he did not say when.
“We are on the path to absolute victory,” he said. “There is no other solution.”
The Israeli attack has killed nearly 28,000 Palestinians and left much of northern Gaza a devastated wasteland. For weeks, fighting has focused on central Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, where shelling and ground fighting have caused similar destruction.
In recent days, Israeli bombing of Rafah has intensified. On Friday, the attacks leveled two buildings and killed at least eight people, including three children and a woman.
In the tent city, Najah Hasheasho said the plastic-covered wooden structure where her family lives shakes every time an explosion hits the area.
“We want to return to Gaza City. That’s our house,” she said.
A resident of the camp, Nahed Abu Asi, said he, like many, believes Israel wants to push the population to Egypt permanently.
“We will not go to Egypt,” he said. “We will return to Gaza City and die there, or anywhere on Gaza soil.”