‘Growing panic’ in Rafah, Gaza’s last civilian refuge, as Israel prepares a ground invasion

Key Points
  • Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it has ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate the population of Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions.
  • The announcement set off panic and warnings from diplomats.
  • More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah.
Israeli air strikes have killed 44 people in Gaza’s Rafah overnight, medics have said, as more than a million Palestinians crammed into the border city await a full-blown offensive with the rest of their enclave in ruins and nowhere left to run.
Also on Saturday, by Israeli military fire, along with the bodies of five of her family members and two ambulance workers who had gone to save her.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) accused Israel of deliberately targeting the ambulance it sent to rescue Hind Rajab after she had spent hours on the phone to dispatchers begging for help.

Israel’s military did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

A woman and her child walk past rubble.

Much of Gaza’s displaced population has been driven to Rafah. Source: AAP / Fatima Shbair/AP

Four months into the war in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it has ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate the population of Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.

The announcement set off panic and warnings from diplomats. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, which had a prewar population of roughly 280,000, many after following Israeli evacuation orders that now cover two-thirds of the territory. It’s not clear where they could run next.
No other relatively unscathed area remains in tiny Gaza and aid agencies have warned that large numbers of civilians could die.
“Any Israeli incursion in Rafah means massacres, means destruction. People are filling every inch of the city and we have nowhere to go,” said Rezik Salah, 35, who fled his Gaza City home with his wife and two children for Rafah early in the war.

“There is a sense of growing anxiety, growing panic in Rafah because basically people have no idea where to go,” said Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.

Israel says that Rafah, which borders Egypt, is the last remaining stronghold for the Hamas militant group in Gaza
Israel has bombarded Gaza since Hamas’ 7 October attack in which more than 1,200 people, including an estimated 30 children, were killed and over 200 hostages taken, according to the Israeli government. More than 28,064 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, according to the health ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The 7 October attack was a significant escalation in the long-standing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Disastrous consequences

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said any Israeli ground offensive on Rafah would have “disastrous consequences,” and asserted that Israel aims to eventually force the Palestinians out of their land.
Another mediator, Qatar, warned of disaster if Israel carries out a Rafah offensive, and Saudi Arabia warned of “very serious repercussions.”
The conflict has threatened to spread across the Middle East, with Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah regularly trading fire, and flare-ups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
An Israeli official who declined to be named said Israel would try to organise for people in Rafah to be moved back north ahead of any assault.

Egypt has said it will not allow any mass displacement of Palestinians into its territory. Palestinians fear Israel means to drive them from their homeland then forbid their return.

Aid agencies warn of ‘catastrophic’ consequences

“Forcing the over one million displaced Palestinians in Rafah to again evacuate without a safe place to go would be unlawful and would have catastrophic consequences,” Nadia Hardman, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.
“There is nowhere safe to go in Gaza. The international community should take action to prevent further atrocities.”
Médecins Sans Frontières echoed Human Rights Watch’s warnings, saying a ground offensive would be “catastrophic and must not proceed”.
“As aerial bombardment of the area continues, more than a million people, many living in tents and makeshift shelters, now face a dramatic escalation in this ongoing massacre,” MSF director general Meinie Nicolai said.

“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.”

MSF says civilians in Rafah facing ‘desperate’ situation

Jennifer Tierney, executive director of MSF Australia, told SBS News civilians around Rafah were experiencing a “compound medical emergency”.
“They have very limited access to clean water, many of them have sustained wounds, and now they are suffering terrible infections, that we’re unable to address because of the sanitary conditions,” Tierney said.

“The malnutrition situation is getting quite desperate, and people cannot access basic care for things like births of premature babies, and we’re sending babies home who should be hospitalised, but the hospitals aren’t safe, and to create an even worse situation for Gazans is just unthinkable, truly unthinkable.”

A large mass of people outside a warehouse.

Human Rights Watch said the evacuation of Palestinians from Rafah would have “catastrophic consequences”. Source: Getty / Mohammed Abed/AFP

Hamas is a Palestinian political and military group, which has governed the Gaza Strip since the most recent elections in 2006.

Hamas’ stated aim is to establish a Palestinian state and stop the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, illegal under international law.
Hamas in its entirety is listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and seven other countries, including Australia. But the UN Assembly rejected classifying Hamas as a terrorist group in a 2018 vote.

In 2021 the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories dating back to 2014, including the recent attacks of both Israel and Hamas.