Little escape for Rafah residents amid plans for offensive

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - RAFAH, April 10 — “It will happen. There is a date,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message on Monday, referring to a planned, large-scale Israeli military offensive in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town. He didn’t elaborate or give a specific date.

In recent weeks, the Israeli prime minister has repeatedly said the town on the border with Egypt is Hamas’s last stronghold and that an offensive was inevitable to declare victory over the group, which is listed as a terrorist organisation in many countries.

The new announcement defies fierce international criticism of the planned ground operations. Over one million Palestinians — more than half of Gaza’s population — have taken refuge in the city, which has been repeatedly bombed. Rafah is also the main logistical hub for aid into Gaza from Egypt.

Meanwhile, Israel’s 98 Division ground forces withdrew from Khan Younis, another southern city, on Sunday, leaving only one brigade in northern Gaza to control a newly created corridor in central Gaza that separates the north from the south. Residents of Khan Younis, displaced to Rafah, were seen going back to see what is left of the city.

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“The Division’s operation in the Khan Younis area has run its course, and in the next phase the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is going for more intelligence-based operations, such as targeted raids,” said Guy Aviad, a military historian and researcher, adding that “the distance between Israel and Gaza is very short, between 2 and 4 kilometres (1.2-2.4 miles), they can enter the area at any time.”

Rafah was supposed to be a safer place, but it never was, said Loay Fareed, who has been displaced multiple times with his family since the war began.

“There are bombings almost every day, and the frequency is increasing every day,” Fareed, 46, told DW via telephone from Rafah.

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Fareed is among an estimated 1.5 million people who heeded the Israeli military’s call to evacuate to southern Gaza — specifically Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town on the border with Egypt. This was to avoid the military operation against Hamas, the Islamist group that carried out the October 7 attacks and took 240 people hostage. The planned offensive on the city has overshadowed a daily struggle to survive.

“My children are frightened by the news that speaks of an imminent invasion of the city. They ask me what we will do and where we will go, but I have no answer for them.”

Before the war, the small town was home to an estimated 250,000 people and was best known for its eponymous border crossing with Egypt. Now there is almost no room within its city borders as residents from elsewhere in Gaza have sought shelter there, sharing houses, living in tents or cars or sleeping in makeshift accommodations on the pavement.

“The life we lead in Rafah is indescribable. It is a life of displacement, a life you can call whatever you want, but it is not normal,” said Fareed.

The city feels “foreign,” he said. “We are not in our home, not in our neighbourhood, not among our neighbours or friends. We cannot go on like this for much longer.

Support and condemnation of Rafah offensive

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet have been adamant that they will go ahead with a planned incursion into Rafah to “eliminate” four battalions of Hamas, which Israel, the United States, the European Union and others deem a terrorist organisation. Hamas are said to be scattered among the displaced civilians and in underground tunnels.

But the planned invasion has drawn sharp criticism worldwide, particularly from the US, Israel’s closest ally and largest arms supplier. US officials have warned that such an offensive would be a “mistake” without a credible plan to relocate and protect civilians.

Egypt has also expressed concerns that the plans could involve the Israeli military taking control of the Philadelphi Corridor, the narrow strip of land between Egypt and Gaza, and pushing civilians looking for safety against its border.

Such criticism has so far made little impression on the Israeli prime minister or the country’s population. A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank based in Jerusalem, suggests that about three-quarters of Jewish Israelis support an expansion of military operations in Rafah, while two-thirds of Israel’s Arab population oppose such a move.

“Israeli public opinion after October 7 was very united on a couple of things. One of them is, of course, to bring all the hostages home, and the other is to end the Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip,” Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official and adviser on Arab affairs, told DW.

American officials have said they want to see an alternative plan centred around precision strikes on Hamas targets rather than a large-scale offensive.

The US, along with Egypt and Qatar, have attempted to negotiate a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas that would ward off a Rafah operation and lead to the release of more Israeli hostages. Talks have yet to result in a deal, and a recent UN Security Council resolution, one the US did not veto, has heightened the pressure.

However, despite the diplomatic row over Israel’s conduct of the war and the Rafah operation, American media have reported on a possible arms deal to supply Israel with additional weapons and F-35 fighter jets.

“I don’t expect Israel to do [the Rafah operation] without very close cooperation and coordination with the United States, especially in the context of dealing with the issue of civilians in Rafah,” says Melamed.

Little escape for Gaza residents in Rafah

Israeli military officials have indicated in briefings to reporters that civilians would be moved to “protected zones.” However, it remains unclear how and to where so many people exhausted from six months of war would be evacuated.

“I don’t know the operational plans of the IDF. But if you look at the map, there is no other way than to evacuate them to the north, along the coastal road near the sea, to the middle are in the Gaza Strip,” Guy Aviad, an Israeli military historian and researcher, told DW.

“But that area is devastated. There is no infrastructure, and you have to supply a huge population with water, tents [and] food. That is a very major problem.”

Several senior UN humanitarian workers who asked not to be named told DW that an estimated 800,000 to one million people will be forced to relocate. Most likely they will be sent toward central Gaza near the seashore, but southwards of the new military corridor, which separates northern Gaza from the south.

While there is more international pressure, not much has changed for Gaza’s 2.3 million people. Six months of war have killed more than 33,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. Israel’s siege of the enclave has led to the onset of famine, particularly in northern Gaza, according to aid agencies and the United Nations.

Gaza resident Fareed said he has made the difficult decision to leave Gaza and take his family to safety. He has registered to travel to Egypt through the Rafah crossing, borrowing money from friends and relatives to pay the expensive registration fees.

“Every day, my children ask me when it will be time to travel. We long to escape this hell, even if only temporarily.”

Most people, he said, have lost faith that a cease-fire will occur and fear that an operation in Rafah could commence after the end of Ramadan.

“There is ongoing political discourse suggesting that the invasion of Rafah is only a matter of time, possibly after Eid, regardless of whether a cease-fire is reached. We must leave before that happens,” Fareed said.

For most Gazans, leaving is not an option, as they remain trapped in the besieged enclave. — DW

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