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ConflictsMiddle East

Palestinians in Rafah feeling trapped amid Israeli offensive

Tania Krämer
February 14, 2024

In Gaza, a looming Israeli operation in Rafah has left the 1 million displaced Palestinians crowded in the city wondering where to go next. Months of war and a humanitarian crisis have had devastating effects.

People leave their home after Israeli bombings in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah
More than 1 million Palestinians are trapped in Rafah as the IDF prepares an operationImage: Yasser Qudih/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

Exhausted after months on the move, Palestinians in Rafah face impossible decisions once again. More and more people have crammed into Gaza's southernmost city, which itself is squeezed against the heavily fortified border with Egypt, and wonder where they can go as the threat of an Israeli ground offensive in the city weighs on their minds.

"We are afraid for our lives," Iman Abu Musa told DW in a WhatsApp message. The 22-year-old recently fled to Rafah from neighboring Khan Yunis, where heavy ground fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants has sent thousands of people south and west in search of safety. Abu Musa said all she could do now is pray for "God's protection."

"We really hope that the aggression will stop before the army enters Rafah and before the situation deteriorates further," Abu Musa wrote.

Palestinians in Rafah ask where they should go

Gaza: 'Nowhere safe'

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that "it is impossible to achieve the war's goal of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah."  He then told the military and security establishment to present "a combined plan for evacuating the population and destroying the battalions." Over the weekend, he claimed in a US TV interview that civilians would be provided "safe passage" without detailing where the large number of people would be able to go. 

The announcement immediately caused widespread international alarm. "The scenario we have long dreaded is unraveling at alarming speed," Martin Griffiths, the UN's undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said in a statement on Tuesday. "More than half of Gaza's population — well over 1 million people — are crammed in Rafah, staring death in the face. They have little to eat, hardly any access to medical care, nowhere to sleep, nowhere safe to go."

Before a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: "An offensive by the Israeli army on Rafah would completely jeopardize the humanitarian situation. Because the people in Rafah cannot simply vanish into thin air." Civilians need a pause in fighting and more humanitarian aid, she said.

How many people are in Rafah?

Before the war, Rafah, best known for its border crossing with Egypt, was home to about 300,000 people. Now, according to the UN, more than half of the Gaza Strip's 2.3 million inhabitants have taken refuge in the city's overcrowded schools, apartments and makeshift tents or sleep on the streets with little protection from rain and cold weather. Rafah is also the main entry point and distribution hub for humanitarian aid into Gaza. A senior humanitarian worker who recently visited Rafah told DW that the humanitarian crisis was beyond anything he had ever seen in decades of work in crisis areas around the globe.

Though Rafah has been considered a "safer zone," the area is bombarded almost daily by airstrikes. On Monday, a series of strikes rocked the city overnight while the Israeli army and special forces rescued two elderly Israeli hostages being held in an apartment in Rafah. The Israeli military described the airstrikes as a cover for the operation. At least 67 people were killed in the area, according to the Hamas-led Health Ministry in Gaza.

Many of the Palestinians seeking refuge in Rafah have been on the move since  October 7, when Hamas militants killed nearly 1,200 people in southern Israel and took more than 240 people hostage. Israel launched a retaliatory military campaign, vowing to eliminate Hamas, which many countries list as a terrorist organization. Since then, health officials in the enclave said more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed, and much of Gaza has been rendered uninhabitable.

View of some of the makeshift tents in Rafah as the Palestinian families seek refuge
More than 1 million Palestinians have fled to Rafah from other parts of the Gaza StripImage: Abed Zagout/Anadolu(picture alliance

'Totally, totally drained'

At the end of October, Israel told Palestinians living in the northern part of the territory to evacuate via designated roads to safer areas in the south. When Israel later widened its ground offensive to the southern town of Khan Yunis, people were told to move farther south again.

Sahar Abu Zeid was among the people who left Khan Yunis, seeking refuge with family in Rafah.

"I sincerely hope that an invasion can be avoided and a quick solution found," Abu Zeid said via WhatsApp. "People here are enduring immense hardship with limited access to food and water. Shelter is scarce and many of us are struggling to find tents to stay in."

She said the prospect of having to relocate once again was devastating: "The psychological toll is immense and has affected me and my family deeply. We feel devastated, totally, totally drained. We can only pray that this will end."

Gaza: Few options left for Palestinians in Rafah

Constant fear

Others in Rafah have already repacked their few belongings.

"Two days ago, I decided to return to Nuseirat," said Basem Al-Mahmoud, referring to the refugee camp in central Gaza. "I decided to act preemptively rather than risk being one of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from Rafah."

In recent days, he said, every conversation has been dominated by fear of an Israeli attack on the town. "We asked ourselves, where would we go if it happened?" It was not an easy decision as roads are extremely risky to navigate and bombardments continue throughout the Gaza Strip.

The 46-year-old came to Rafah a month ago with his wife, four children, father and widowed sister. The family is originally from Gaza City and has been displaced several times since the start of the war.

"Life in Rafah has been incredibly hard in the month we've been here," he said. "Getting food and water is not easy, nor is moving around the city due to overcrowding, and there is a constant fear of bombings."

Al-Mahmoud is under no illusion that it is safe anywhere in Gaza, "The situation is terrible everywhere, and we are desperate for even a little bit of security — a place to sleep without the constant fear of what might come."

Hazem Balousha contributed reporting from Amman.

Edited by: Sean M. Sinico