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MSC24: Experts debate where people in Gaza can find safety

Stephanie Höppner
February 18, 2024

Around 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering in southern Gaza, an area Israel is now threatening to attack. At the Munich Security Conference, attendees asked where the Palestinians could go next.

A displaced Palestinian woman walks past a tent as people camp near the border fence between Gaza and Egypt.
It's thought that around 1.5 million people are sheltering, many in tents, near the border with EgyptImage: Mohammed Abed/AFP

For months, the Israeli government has been telling Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip to flee south. According to aid organizations, there are now around 1.5 million people in Rafah, a city of usually only around 300,000 people close to the border with Egypt. Many of those now sheltering in Rafah have already been displaced several times.

The living conditions in and around Rafah are catastrophic. Many of the refugees endure the cold in makeshift shelters and tents. There's a shortage of food, drinking water and medicines.

And the situation could soon get worse. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a ground offensive on Rafah to target Hamas militants there, he says. The group is classified as a terrorist organization by Germany, the EU, the US and others.

Before starting an offensive on Rafah, the Israeli side would direct civilians in presumed combat areas to move to safe zones, Netanyahu has said.

Those plans have been met with hefty international criticism though. Even the US, Israel's most important ally, is urging caution. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned of a "humanitarian catastrophe” and called for long term safe zones to be set up. 

Children searching through debris in a destroyed building
Even in Rafah, many buildings are already in ruinsImage: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images

The conflict in Gaza started after a terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people. Israel then declared war on Hamas. Since the Israeli campaign began in Gaza, almost 29,000 people have been killed there according to figures from the health authorities in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. 

Strong warning to Netanyahu

The war in Gaza was among the top issues discussed at the 60th Munich Security Conference. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of Fatah, the group that governs in the occupied West Bank, called on the Israeli government to allow the people currently crowding into the south of the Gaza Strip to return to their homes.

He also warned Netanyahu not to drive the people into neighboring Egypt and said they'd worked with the Egyptians to ensure this would not happen. There are concerns that any Palestinains who left the Gaza Strip might not be allowed to return. 

Mohammad Shtayyeh
Mohammad Shtayyeh warned Israel not to drive the refugees into neighboring EgyptImage: THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP

Shtayyeh added that at Russia's invitation there would be a meeting of all Palestinian groups in Moscow in February. In a discussion conducted by DW, he said: "We will see if Hamas is ready to come with ground to us, we are ready to engage. If Hamas is not going to come to ground with us, that's a different story. But we need Palestinian unity under any circumstances." 

MSC: Criticism and understanding

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives and Democratic party member, Nancy Pelosi told DW: "The behavior of Netanyahu is, in my view, inexcusable in terms of how it has affected children and families." Health authorities in Gaza say most of those killed have been women and children. 

On the other hand, Pelosi added, "we recognize Israel's right to protect itself, defend its borders and the rest. But I would hope that they would hear the call of Secretary Blinken and, of course, President Joe Biden — all of us are friends of Israel — and be careful about the civilians."

The head of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union, Friedrich Merz, also appealed to the Israeli government in an interview with DW. "Protect the civilians but fight terrorism in the Gaza Strip so that this problem will never occur again," he said, adding that he would never wag his finger at Israel. 

Where can Palestinians go?

For days, there has been speculation about the few options that Gaza's internally displaced have in case of an Israeli ground offensive on Rafah. The media, citing security sources and the NGO Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, reported that Egypt was preparing camps that could house up to 100,000 Palestinians if necessary.

Egypt has rejected reports that the camps would be like prisons. The head of Egypt's State Information Service, Diaa Rashwan, said that Egypt was opposed to the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza and did not even want them to go voluntarily if Gaza became uninhabitable. Long before the start of the Israeli military operation, Egypt had already built a buffer zone and fences on its side of the border. The country also works closely with Israel on border security around Gaza. 

Egypt building Gaza buffer zone as Rafah offensive looms

Life in the ruins

Another plan for Palestinians would be to go north in Gaza again, back to the cities where many first came from. If Israel launches an offensive in Rafah, the army would try to move the civilian population north, an Israeli military official said. However, according to analysts, Israel's offensive has destroyed over almost 70% of all structures in northern Gaza already and services there, as well as water and food, are almost non-existent. 

As Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has pointed out, the area immediately north of Rafah, cannot accommodate hundreds of thousands of people in tents. A return to Gaza City or Khan Younis further north would mean "living among the ruins with no infrastructure,” it said. 

According to the UN, the area is practically "uninhabitable”. 

A potential solution for people sheltering in Rafah could theoretically be negotiated at the UN Security Council on Tuesday. The council is considering a draft resolution that calls for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" as well as the release of all Israeli hostages. But the US has already said it would veto the current draft submitted by Algeria, with Washington saying it prefers a hostage release and a pause in fighting for six weeks to an immediate ceasefire.

This article was originally published in German.