Israel announces ground attack on Rafah, the last refuge for more than a million people in Gaza

Fear spreads among the hundreds of thousands of displaced people crowded into southern Gaza, trapped along the border with Egypt, an area turned into a ‘pressure cooker of despair,’ according to the U.N.

Palestinians flee the city of Khan Younis towards Rafah, on February 2, 2024
Palestinians flee the city of Khan Younis towards Rafah, on February 2, 2024.Abed Rahim Khatib (DPA/Europa Press)
Luis de Vega

“We will continue to Rafah,” Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a post on X, making the Israeli army’s intentions crystal clear. Rafah, at the southern tip of the Palestinian enclave and bordering Egypt, has turned into a “pressure cooker of despair,” according to the United Nations. More than a million Palestinians have fled there — a city Israel itself designated a “safe zone” — in the hopes of escaping the incessant Israeli attacks. In the meantime, there have been no concrete announcements by any of the parties to the conflict that would bring a ceasefire any closer.

Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said Friday that they “fear for what comes next,” in reference to the very serious consequences of military ground operations extending southward into Rafah. Since the Israeli army’s announcement late Thursday night, fear has been spreading rapidly among the population. “In every corner of Rafah you can find internally displaced people sleeping in the streets, unprotected, suffering the inclement rain and cold. We can’t take it anymore, we are very tired,” said via messages Karim, an NGO employee who, for security reasons, asked that no more details about him be published.

“I want to emphasize our deep concern about the escalation of hostilities in Khan Younis, which has resulted in an increase in the number of internally displaced people seeking refuge in Rafah in recent days,” Laerke warned from Geneva, as reported by Reuters. The possible arrival of Israeli troops in Rafah is seen by many as the final straw for a population of more than one million forcibly displaced people who have nowhere else to go, as they have been cornered into Gaza’s border with Egypt. “We are very afraid of that happening. It would be a horrible thing for us, I don’t even want to think about what could happen to us if [the Israeli army] enters Rafah. It could be a massacre.”

Internally displaced Palestinians seek refuge inside makeshift shelters in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 2, 2024.
Internally displaced Palestinians seek refuge inside makeshift shelters in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 2, 2024. HAITHAM IMAD (EFE)

Late Thursday, Yoav Gallant also announced via X that the “Khan Younis brigade of the Hamas organization” had been “disbanded” by Israeli forces. Nevertheless, Israel still has not captured or announced the death of any Hamas commander, despite the fact that Israeli troops have for weeks focused their attacks in Khan Younis, Hamas’ main stronghold. “We will complete the mission [in Khan Younis] and continue to Rafah. The great pressure that the forces exert on Hamas targets brings us closer to the return of the abductees, more than anything else. We will continue until the end, there is no other way,” the minister added.

Karim, who already has two daughters, anxiously recounts how his wife is due to give birth to their son in two months. “My wife is reaching her seventh month of pregnancy. We can’t even find clothes for the baby. I have been looking for more than a month in the markets, but nothing.” He lives under the constant fear that something might happen to his daughters, his wife, his sister, his parents... “We don’t want to be stripped naked and paraded in the streets,” he says, referring to scenes videotaped by the Israeli military showing mass arrests in other areas of Gaza, in which Israeli forces forced detainees to strip down to their underwear. “This is not humane. We are human beings like the rest of the world, we have rights, we have dignity. This is unbelievable,” he adds, indignant at the passivity of the international community.

Exhausted, starving, traumatized

During the past four months of war, Rafah has been the last refuge for many Gazans. This area in southern Gaza is home to more than half of the enclave’s population of 2.3 million. Since October 7, 2023, Israel has been pushing the Strip’s population south, particularly since it launched its military ground operation on October 27. The Israeli army designated Rafah a “safe zone,” despite the fact that it has also targeted the city in its aerial bombardments.

“People are enduring unimaginable circumstances; they are exhausted, hungry, and traumatized. Families have lost everything and faced displacement repeatedly. Thousands lack adequate shelters against the cold and rain, while diseases tighten their grip,” the World Health Organization (WHO) in Palestine denounced Friday via X. “Over 100,000 Gazans are either dead, injured, or missing and presumed dead,” the head of the U.N. agency said Thursday. That figure includes the more than 27,000 people reported dead by authorities in Gaza.

“I don’t know what [is going to] happen to me and my family. I am very afraid of losing one of them. If I had the opportunity to leave Gaza with my family members, I would take it in a heartbeat,” Karim says.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo

¿Quieres añadir otro usuario a tu suscripción?

Si continúas leyendo en este dispositivo, no se podrá leer en el otro.

¿Por qué estás viendo esto?


Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo y solo puedes acceder a EL PAÍS desde un dispositivo a la vez.

Si quieres compartir tu cuenta, cambia tu suscripción a la modalidad Premium, así podrás añadir otro usuario. Cada uno accederá con su propia cuenta de email, lo que os permitirá personalizar vuestra experiencia en EL PAÍS.

En el caso de no saber quién está usando tu cuenta, te recomendamos cambiar tu contraseña aquí.

Si decides continuar compartiendo tu cuenta, este mensaje se mostrará en tu dispositivo y en el de la otra persona que está usando tu cuenta de forma indefinida, afectando a tu experiencia de lectura. Puedes consultar aquí los términos y condiciones de la suscripción digital.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS