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Anguish grips refugees in Rafah: ‘We are terrified, not knowing where to escape to’

Over one million Palestinians forcibly displaced to Gaza’s border with Egypt are surviving in increasingly inhumane conditions. Now, they face an Israeli military incursion with nowhere else to turn to

Refugiados en Rafah
Palestinian citizens mourn the death of several relatives in an Israeli bombing in Rafah, this Saturday.Fatima Shbair (AP)
Luis de Vega

Tamer Srour, 37, and his three daughters have moved up to five times. First they wandered between their hometown of Beit Lahia and the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza. Then they were pushed to Khan Younis and later to Rafah. “We can’t imagine what it might be like if [the Israeli troops] try to move us out of Rafah,” says Srour in a voice message. Every Palestinian in Rafah consulted by EL PAÍS via telephone — since Israel does not allow the entry of foreign press into the Gaza Strip — shares Srour’s fear. “You can barely survive in a tent with small children, with planes passing overhead and thinking all the time that they want to kill us.”

The fear and uncertainty accumulated after 127 days of war are growing among the population trying to survive in Rafah in increasingly inhumane conditions, as denounced by the United Nations, Egypt and various humanitarian organizations. The Israeli army has announced several times that it is preparing to invade this southern locality of the Palestinian enclave bordering Egypt, where more than one million people have sought refuge. The operation is part of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “combined plan” since, in addition to the military incursion, he has said Israeli forces are to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of civilians currently in Rafah in order to “eliminate” Hamas.

“I am very afraid for my three daughters, for their future, for what will happen to them,” says Srour who, along with his family, is one of the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been forcibly displaced to southern Gaza since Israeli troops invaded the Palestinian enclave after the Hamas attack on October 7. “We have been using a plastic bag as a bathroom for four months,” he explains, detailing the conditions in which they have to survive.

As tensions rise in Rafah, Egypt has reinforced its military presence on the other side of the border, Egyptian authorities confirmed to the Efe news agency. “There is a sense of growing anxiety and growing panic in Rafah. People have absolutely no idea where else to go. Any large-scale military operation among this population can only lead to an additional layer of endless tragedy that’s unfolding in Gaza,” warned on X Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

Samir Zaqout, deputy director of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, doubts that Israeli forces will carry out an evacuation. He believes any plan to move over one million people is doomed to fail. “Hamas has the ability to sneak from one place to another, but that can’t be done by civilians. This is all a joke,” he explains, referring to what, in his opinions, are undoubtedly “war crimes.” “What are the Israelis going to find that they haven’t already found in Khan Yunis or elsewhere?” he asks.

Rafah is the last area left for the Israeli army to occupy in its military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which has already killed over 28,000 people, according to figures released Saturday by local health authorities. Up to 117 — 17 of them in Rafah — were killed in the last 24 hours, according to the same sources. Among the latest attacks carried out by Israel was the bombing of a car carrying Hamas members in Rafah, according to the army. The main target was Ahmed al-Yaqoubi, who was responsible for providing security for senior Hamas leaders, according to Israeli authorities. Along with him, two other Hamas members were killed. “Attacking Rafah poses a danger to all of us Palestinians who are here. We are all terrified, not knowing what to do, what is happening and where to escape to,” says Mahmud Imad, 34.

Humanitarian crisis

Samir Zaqout says it is impossible to move all the civilians in Rafah because of the military occupation and the destruction Israeli forces have caused throughout Gaza. “This is a disaster. I have no words to describe what is happening. People have nowhere to go,” he says. He considers himself privileged because he is staying with relatives in Rafah, but insists that most people are sleeping in tents, in gardens, in the streets... “We are living in the heart of a huge humanitarian crisis. Everything is lacking here: medicine, food, water, money. Going to the bathroom, with hundreds of people in front of you, is impossible and taking a shower is a dream,” he describes.

“Unfortunately, it is extremely hard, but we have no choice but to be evacuated again and move to a new place. They said Rafah was safe, but they lied. We were attacked just a few minutes ago and the conditions are getting tougher and tougher,” says Mahmoud Imad. Imad escaped to Khan Younis — the focus of the Israeli military offensive in recent weeks — with 10 members of his family from the north after the first month of fighting. He estimates that a month ago they escaped from there and arrived in Rafah. He complains about how hard it is to get everything, especially food for his children.

“Israel’s declared ground offensive on Rafah would be catastrophic and must not proceed,” said Meinie Nicolai, director general of the Belgian section of Doctors Without Borders (MSF). “Nowhere in Gaza is safe, and repeated forced displacements have pushed people to Rafah, where they are trapped in a tiny patch of land and have no options,” she added. “Israeli statements and actions in southern Gaza, in Rafah, indicate that there will be more civilian casualties,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at a press conference in Cairo, as reported by the Efe news agency. Israel will try to move civilians north — which has been overwhelming destroyed by Israeli forces — before storming Rafah, Israeli military sources told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“The only option left to us would be to at least be able to return to our homes. Ramadan [the holy month for Muslims] is at the gates, [so] I appeal to the international community to let us return to our homes. None of the Arab leaders have done anything to stop the war,” laments Srour, the father of the three girls. “Now they want to come [into Rafah], where we are more than 1.4 million refugees. If they come in, I’m afraid the tanks will roll over the people,” he says. UNRWA gives them two cans of beans and two cans of meat every week, which he considers totally insufficient even for one person. They can hardly find flour and the price of a kilo of sugar exceeds 40 shekels (about $10) in the local market, he adds.

“Our life is extremely hard,” Majd Abu Qudah adds. “We live without gas, without medicine, with very high prices, so that we can’t even access things for the children,” he adds. Abu Qudah escaped from the north with a group of ten people, including his children, sister and mother. They ended up taking refuge in a school in Khan Younis before having to continue south to neighboring Rafah. Abu Qudah says it’s extremely difficult to live under the constant threats from Israeli troops, especially now that they have announced that they will push them “into the unknown.” “We will have to leave everything behind. Our fear now is what comes after Rafah?”

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