Tents for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Friday.Credit: Saleh Salem / Reuters
Since Yahya Sinwar, his close aides and Hamas militants have never been found in Gaza City and then not in Khan Yunis, the Israeli army is considering expanding its ground operation into the southern Gaza city of Rafah. The army is doing so because it assumes that Sinwar and his aids are hiding in the tunnels underneath this southern region of the Gaza Strip, presumably holding on to the Israeli hostages who are still alive.
Most of the Gaza Strip residents, some 1.4 million people, are concentrated in Rafah. Tens of thousands are still fleeing into the city from Khan Yunis, where the fighting continues. The thought that Israel will invade Rafah and that fighting will take place between and near civilians terrifies the city’s residents and the internally displaced persons. The terror they feel is augmented by the conclusion that nobody can prevent Israel from carrying out its intention – not even the ICJ ruling that orders Israel to take all measures to avoid acts of genocide.
Military correspondents in Israel report and assume that the army intends to order residents of Rafah to move to a safe area. Since the war started, the army has been waving around this evacuation order as evidence that it is acting in order to prevent any harm to “uninvolved civilians.”
This safe zone, however, which was bombarded and still is bombarded by Israel, is gradually shrinking. The only safe zone that truly remains, and which the IDF is now designating for the masses of people in Rafah, is Al-Mawasi – a southern Gaza coastal area of approximately 16 square kilometers (about 6 square miles).
It’s still unclear by what verbal measures the IDF and its legal experts intend to reconcile this squeezing of so many civilians with the orders given by the ICJ.
“The humanitarian zone designated by the army is around the size of Ben-Gurion International Airport (about 6.3 square miles),” concluded Haaretz journalists Yarden Michaeli and Avi Scharf in their report earlier this week. The report, titled “Gazans Fled Their Homes. They Have Nowhere to Return to,” revealed the vast devastation across the Gaza Strip as captured in Satellite images.
Palestinians in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Thursday.Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP
The comparison with Ben-Gurion International Airport invites one to imagine a density beyond anything imaginable, but Israeli TV commentators don’t go much further beyond the deep insight that the ground invasion of Rafah will indeed, “won’t be that simple.”
Although it’s difficult, we must imagine what awaits the Palestinians in Rafah if the army’s plan is carried out. We must do so not so much as of humanist and moral considerations, which after October 7 aren’t that relevant to the majority of the Israeli-Jewish public, but because of the military, humanitarian, and – eventually – legal and political entanglements that are surely expected if we go down that road.
Even if “only” about a million Palestinians will flee for the third and fourth time into Al-Mawasi – an area which is already full of displaced Gazans – the density will be about 62,500 people per square kilometer (about 157,000 people per square mile).
This will happen in an open area with no skyscrapers to house the refugees, that has no running water, no privacy, no means of living, no hospitals or medical clinics, no solar panels to charge phones, and all while aid organizations will have to cross through or near battle zones in order to distribute the small amounts of food that do enter the Gaza Strip.
It seems that the only position in which this narrow area could accommodate everyone would be if they’re all standing or kneeling. Perhaps it’ll be necessary to form special committees that will determine sleeping arrangements in shifts: a few thousand would lie down while the rest continue to stand awake. The buzzing of the drones above and below, the cries of babies born during the war and whose mothers have no milk or not enough of it – these will be the unnerving soundtrack.
From what we saw during the IDF’s ground raids and the battles in Gaza City and Khan Yunis, it’s clear that the ground operation in Rafah, if it eventually unfolds, will last many weeks. Does Israel believe that the ICJ will consider the compression of hundreds of thousands or a million Palestinians on a small piece of land a proper “measure” that prevents genocide?
About 270 thousand Palestinians lived in the Rafah district before the war. The one-and-a-half million who are currently staying there suffer from hunger and malnutrition; they suffer from thirst, cold, diseases and spreading infections, from lice in their hair and skin rash; they suffer from physical and mental exhaustion and a chronic lack of sleep. They crowd in schools, hospitals and mosques, in tent neighborhoods that have sprung up in and around Rafah, and in apartments that house dozens of displaced families.
Tens of thousands of them are wounded, including those whose limbs were amputated due to the army’s attacks or surgeries that followed. They all have relatives and friends – children, babies and elderly parents – who have been killed in the past four months.
Palestinians in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Thursday.Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
The houses of most of them were destroyed or badly damaged. All their possessions are lost. Their money has run out due to the high and exorbitant food prices. Many escaped death only by chance, and witnessed the dreadful sights of dead bodies. They don’t mourn the dead yet because the trauma continues. Along with displays of support and solidarity, disputes and fights also occur. Some lose their memory and sanity from all the suffering.
As it has done in other areas in the strip, to maintain the element of surprise, the IDF will issue a warning about two hours before a ground invasion into Rafah. This will give the residents a time window of a few hours that day to evacuate the city.
Imagine this convoy of refugees and the mass panic of people fleeing toward Al-Mawasi in the west. Think of the elders, the sick, the disabled and the wounded who will be “lucky” to be transported in donkey carts or makeshift wheelbarrows and in cars that run on cooking oil.
All the others – both sick and healthy – will have to leave on foot. They’ll probably have to leave behind the little that they’ve managed to collect and take with them in previous displacements, like blankets and plastic sheets for shelter, warm clothes, some food and basic items such as small cookers.
Destruction in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Thursday.Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
This forced escape march will probably go through the ruins of some of the buildings that Israel bombed not long ago, or the craters created on the road due to the attacks. The whole convoy will then stand still until a detour is found. Someone is bound to trip; a cartwheel will get stuck in the mud. And all of them – hungry and thirsty, frightened by the imminent attack or the expected tank shelling – will continue going forward. Children will cry and get lost. People will feel bad. Medical teams will struggle to reach whoever needs care.
Only 4 kilometers (about 2.4 miles) separate Rafah from Al-Mawasi, but it’ll require several hours to cross. The people marching will be cut off from any communication, if only because of the packed convoy and the overcrowding. They’ll fight over the area where they wish to set up a tent. They’ll fight over who gets to be closest to a building or a water well. They’ll faint due to thirst and hunger.
The following image will repeat itself several times over the next few days: A march of starving and frightened Palestinians starts fleeing in panic each time the IDF announces another area whose residents are supposed to evacuate, while the tanks and infantry troops advance toward them. The shelling and ground troops will get closer to the hospitals that are still functioning. Tanks will surround them, and all the patients and medical teams will be required to evacuate to the crowded Al-Mawasi area.
It’s hard to know how many of them will decide not to leave. As we learned from what happened in the northern Gaza districts and Khan Yunis, a significant number of residents prefer to stay in an area that is destined for a ground operation. Among them will be tens of thousands of displaced, sick and seriously wounded Gazans who are hospitalized, pregnant women and others who will decide to stay in their own homes and the homes of their relatives or in schools turned into shelters. The little information they will get from the concentration area of Al-Mawasi is enough to discourage them from joining.
IDF soldiers and commanders, however, interpret the evacuation order differently: anyone who remains in an area designated for ground invasion isn’t considered an innocent civilian; they aren’t considered “uninvolved.”
Damaged Hamad Hospital in Gaza City in the aftermath of Israeli bombardment, last week.Credit: AFP
Anyone who stays in their homes and goes out to fetch water from a city facility that is still operating or from some private well, medical teams called to treat a patient, a pregnant woman walking to a nearby hospital to give birth – all of them, as we saw during the war and in past military campaigns, are criminalized in the eyes of the soldiers. Shooting and killing them follows the IDF’s rules of engagement.
According to the army, such shootings are carried out in accordance with international law because these individuals were warned that they must leave. Even when soldiers break into houses during the fighting, Gazans, mainly men, are at risk of death from gunfire. A soldier shooting someone because they felt threatened or followed an order – it doesn’t matter. It happened in Gaza City, and it might happen in Rafah.
Just as the aid teams aren’t authorized or are unable to reach the northern Gaza Strip to distribute food, they won’t be able to distribute it in the fighting areas in Rafah. The little food that the residents managed to save will gradually run out.
Those who remain in their homes will be forced to choose the lesser of two evils: either they go out and risk Israeli fire or starve at home. Most of them already suffer from a severe lack of nutrients. In many families, adults are giving up food so that their children can be fed. There’s a real danger that many will starve to death while in their home as the fighting rages outside.
Since the war started, the army bombarded residential buildings, open areas and passenger cars in every location it had defined as “safe” (that its residents weren’t required to leave). It doesn’t matter if the attacks target Hamas facilities, the group’s officials or other members who were staying with their families or have come out of hiding to visit them – civilians are almost always killed.
The bombings didn’t stop in Rafah either. Overnight into Thursday, two houses were bombed in the western Rafah neighborhood of Tel al-Sultan. According to Palestinian sources, 14 people were killed, including five children.
Palestinian mourn loved ones in a hospital in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Thursday.Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
The sources also said that a mother and daughter were killed in an Israeli attack on a house in northern Rafah on February 7 and that a journalist was killed together with his mother and sister in western Rafah the day before. Also on February 6, the sources added, six Palestinian police officers were killed in an Israeli attack while they were securing an aid truck in eastern Rafah.
These attacks indicate that the so-called collateral damage calculations approved by IDF legal experts and the State Prosecutor’s Office are extremely permissive. The number of uninvolved Palestinians that it is “permitted” to kill in return for hitting an army’s target is higher than in any previous war.
People in Rafah are afraid that the IDF will apply these permissive criteria also in Al-Mawasi, and attack there as well if a target is in the area, among the hundreds of thousands who take shelter. This is how an announced safe haven will become a death trap for hundreds of thousands.