Petrified Gazans in the cramped southern border city of Rafah scrambled to evade bombardment on Saturday as they prepared to flee an expected Israeli ground offensive, dreading the prospect of again searching for safety in a place with few, if any, options to escape the war.
Israeli officials have declared that the next phase in their effort to destroy Hamas will be in Rafah, and on Friday, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that “any forceful action in Rafah would require the evacuation of the civilian population from combat zones.”
The Israeli government has not specified where the civilians would be expected to go. Rafah sits along the border with Egypt, which has so far refused to take in Palestinian refugees, fearful over its own security and worried that the displacement could become permanent and undermine Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
On Saturday, Germany, Britain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia joined an international chorus condemning Israel’s stated intention of expanding its ground invasion into the city. Aid groups, the secretary general of the United Nations and officials from the Biden administration have warned that an Israeli attack on Rafah would be disastrous.
“An offensive by the Israeli army on Rafah would be a humanitarian catastrophe,” Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister of Germany, said in a statement on social media. “The people in #Gaza cannot disappear into thin air.”
Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, said on social media that he was “deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority in the Israel-occupied West Bank, on Saturday called on the United States to pressure Israel to stop what he called “the genocidal massacres” of Palestinian civilians. Israel denies it has committed genocide or purposely targeted civilians. The United States has been strongly supportive of Israel since it launched the war in Gaza on Oct. 7, after a Hamas-led attack in southern Gaza. Washington sends billions in weapons and other military aid to the Israeli military.
Mr. Netanyahu on Saturday sought to soothe public concern after Moody’s, citing the prolonged war with Hamas and the effect it was having on Israel’s finances, downgraded Israel’s credit score for the first time in years. Calling the Israeli economy “robust,” he said in a statement that the damage would be reversed after the war with Hamas ends.
The concerns — about a devastating loss of life, a disruption of humanitarian assistance and a further depletion of essential services — came as Israeli forces bombarded Rafah and other parts of southern Gaza with airstrikes, Palestinian news media reported. Multiple people were killed when Israeli airstrikes struck a vehicle and homes where displaced people were sheltering.
The continued airstrikes have terrified the more than half of Gaza’s 2.2 million people who have taken shelter in Rafah during four months of Israeli bombardment and warnings by the Israeli military to flee south. They have fled fighting and destruction elsewhere to pack themselves into a city where finding enough food, water and medicine has become a daily struggle.
Rents have skyrocketed, and multiple families share small apartments. Tent camps have taken over most open areas. Food and fuel have become so scarce that some people have taken to burning old clothes and pages from books to heat canned beans and bake flatbread.
Already, the overcrowding has taxed the area’s resources, and newly displaced Gazans continue to arrive as fighting rages on in the city of Khan Younis to the north.
“It is very bad; the hygiene level is very low,” said Fathi Abu Snema, 45, who has been sheltering with his family in a U.N. school in Rafah since early in the war. “Here we eat only canned food, which is anything but healthy. Everything else is very expensive.”
He feared that many would die if Israel invaded Rafah. “I prefer to die here,” he said. “There is not one safe place to go in Gaza. You could get killed anywhere, even in street.”
Sana al-Kabariti, a pharmacist and skin-care expert, fled to Rafah from Gaza City, where both her home and her clinic have since been destroyed, she said.
Even if the war were to stop soon, she expects there would be little interest in her skin-care services because people would be focused on trying to rebuild their homes and lives, she said.
“I am worried about my future in Gaza,” said Ms. al-Kabariti, 33. “I really need to leave the strip.”
More than 27,000 people have been killed by Israel in Gaza during the four-month war, health authorities there say. The Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7 killed about 1,200 people and led to the abduction of more than 250 others, Israeli officials say.
Mr. Netanyahu signaled this week that Israel intended to push farther south, into what he described as the enclave’s last Hamas stronghold. His office said in a statement that it would be impossible to fulfill Israel’s stated objective of crushing Hamas’s rule in Gaza without destroying what it said were the group’s four battalions in Rafah. The military’s “combined plan” would have to both “evacuate the civilian population and topple the battalions,” the statement said.
The crisis in Rafah reflects the dire circumstances across the enclave. The World Food Program warned last month that the territory’s entire population of Gaza was suffering crisis levels of food insecurity or worse. In late December, the agency said that nine out of 10 people were eating less than one meal a day, and the situation has worsened as aid groups struggle to deliver the little aid that is entering Gaza.
Um Mohammad Abu Awwad, a 35-year-old mother, said that her family sheltering in the north of the territory had not been able to find any flour to buy for weeks. Even when flour was available, she said, a bag would cost around $200 — an impossible sum for their family, which has no income amid the war.
Ms. Abu Awwad said that she has had to resort to grinding hay and animal fodder as a substitute for flour. But even animal feed was becoming more expensive now, she said.
“We want food and water to keep our children alive,” Ms. Abu Awwad said in a voice message this past week. “The adults can survive, but the children are dying of hunger.”
Iyad Abuheweila, Abu Bakr Bashir and Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.