Families in Gaza scramble for safety — again — as Israel moves into Rafah


JERUSALEM — 600,000 Palestinians have fled Rafah in the ten days since Israel’s military began its advance on the city, the United Nations estimates, the latest mass exodus in a conflict marked by repeated rounds of forced displacement.

Carrying children, tents and whatever else they have left, Gazans have trekked along war-damaged roads to squalid encampments and demolished cities where there is little food, water or shelter to be found.

Deir al-Balah, central Gaza

Source: Maxar Technologies

Deir al-Balah, central Gaza

Source: Maxar Technologies

Deir al-Balah, central Gaza

Source: Maxar Technologies

Deir al-Balah, central Gaza

Source: Maxar Technologies

Deir al-Balah, central Gaza

Source: Maxar Technologies

The staggering figures — more than 150,000 people have fled in just the last 48 hours — are expected to keep growing as Israeli forces move deeper into Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, which until recently was deemed a “safe zone” by Israel and housed about half of the Strip’s 2.2 million residents. Since May 6, Israel has issued evacuation orders for eastern Rafah and told residents to go north to designated “humanitarian zones.”

In a dozen phone interviews over the last week, Gazans described wrestling with agonizing choices over whether to leave, where to go and how to survive. “Gaza has for me become like a ghost town not fit for human life,” Shireen Abu Qamar, 36, said between network outages in western Rafah.

Israel will do “what we have to do to win this war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday, defending the Rafah assault as essential to defeating Hamas’s last intact battalions.

Israel Defense Forces has characterized the operation as “limited,” but it has already had a massive impact on civilians, many of whom had found in Rafah some measure of stability, however precarious, after months of hunger and bombardment.

Abu Qamar fled with her family from the northern Beit Hanoun refugee camp in the early days of the war after their home was hit in a strike. They have been uprooted six times in seven months.

“Still the journey of displacement continues,” she said.

The former journalist spoke this week from a makeshift U.N.-run camp in Tel al-Sultan, just outside Israel’s evacuation zone, where she has lived since February in a hand-sewn tent with her husband and three children. Her youngest son, Mohammed, suffered severe burns from a strike on a relative’s home that killed four family members. Daily, she said, her children ask: “When will we return to our home and toys?”

By Wednesday, only around 30 people remained in a camp that once held more than 500, she said, as families scrambled to stay ahead of the Israeli advance.

Abu Qamar tried to leave, too.

Western Khan Younis, about five miles away, seemed the safest bet, she reasoned. She had some family there, themselves displaced from the eastern part of the city. It was a little “reassuring” that the Israeli army had told people to go there, she said, “but according to previous experience, there is no safe place.”

On Tuesday, the family secured a coveted and costly ride to Khan Younis, but decided against going when relatives warned about conditions there.

“In Khan Younis there is severe population congestion and unbelievable crowdedness,” Abu Qamar said, weighing the risks. “Water is not available, and the displaced people travel longer distances to buy water.”

In Rafah, she at least had free water and space for her tent. Food was running out, but that was true everywhere.

“Since the army entered Rafah and closed the crossing, we did not receive any [U.N.] aid and there is no food,” she said Wednesday. A cheese sandwich was all she had eaten that day; in the background, she could hear the booms of airstrikes and artillery.

Forty-year-old Wissam scooped up his children and fled from Rafah last week. He spoke to The Post on the condition that only his first name be used as he feared for his safety.

Wissam lived in el-Jeneina, in Rafah’s city center. Unlike most Gazans, the trader had been able to remain in his home throughout the war. “I had solar panels, water, internet and safety,” he said Monday.

Wissam’s neighborhood was not part of the initial evacuation zone. When the Israeli orders went out on May 6, he thought he still had some time. The next day, the IDF launched an intense bombing campaign in al-Jeneina, which it said targeted Hamas fighters and infrastructure. Wissam’s children — aged 2, 4, and 6 — were terrified.

On May 9, Wissam decided they had to go. He set out with his extended family around 10 a.m. It took six hours to walk the five miles to Mawasi, carrying whatever they could — mattresses, blankets, plates, cups, a water jug, the canned food they’d been saving.

“The roads were crowded and children were screaming,” he said.

The IDF has described the coastal area of Mawasi, as well as parts of nearby Khan Younis and central Deir al-Balah, as an “expanded humanitarian zone” where civilians “will be provided with water, food, medical supplies and shelter centers.”

Wissam found none of that when he arrived in Mawasi. Unable to secure a tent — which are expensive and hard to come by — he devised a makeshift shelter out of sticks and blankets. It is sweltering in the sun and they only spend the nights inside.

Source: Maxar Technologies

Source: Maxar Technologies

Source: Maxar Technologies

Source: Maxar Technologies

“I don’t have a bathroom, no food, no water,” he said. Internet and phone service is minimal.

“Death wouldn’t be harder.”

The close quarters and lack of sanitation are likely to be a breeding ground for infectious diseases, health groups have warned, but Wissam said the closest clinic is miles away.

There’s no going back to Rafah, though. On Saturday, the IDF expanded its evacuation zone to include al-Jeneina. Three days later, Israeli tanks entered his neighborhood.

Humanitarian agencies have said for months that Mawasi — an agricultural area before the war — lacked the infrastructure to host large numbers of displaced Palestinians. The sudden eruption of fighting and Israel’s seizure and closure of the Rafah crossing has cut aid agencies off from storage centers and left them with little food or fuel to distribute.

A trickle of aid trucks have made it through the Kerem Shalom crossing over the last week — reopened by Israel after Hamas rocket attacks — but access to it runs through the evacuation zone.

Humanitarian operations in Gaza are “stuck” and “unplannable,” U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said Thursday. Famine, he said, is an “immediate” danger.

“We’ve been trying for a while to move aid from Kerem Shalom, but we need the right security and coordination circumstances from authorities that will allow us to deliver from the other side of the border inside Gaza safely,” said a humanitarian worker, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. “The roads around the crossing are unsafe, unfit for travel, or overcrowded” with the displaced.

Washington, which has always opposed a “major offensive” in Rafah, had also insisted that any operation there be accompanied by a credible Israeli plan to evacuate civilians.

“The problem now is there are such limited places for them to go inside Gaza and there is no effective way to distribute aid to them and make sure they have access to shelter, access to sanitation, in the places that they would go,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on May 6. As Rafah empties, and Gaza’s humanitarian disaster expands, U.S. officials maintain the Israeli campaign there has not crossed Biden’s “red line.”

“What we understand is those operations are targeted,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “They’re limited. That’s what we’ve been told. We’re going to continue to monitor the situation.”

Gazans unable to flee Rafah by foot have few transport options. Fuel prices have soared due to shortages. A ride out of the city can cost at least $200 and often much more, according to residents and Palestinian drivers, whose numbers are circulated on Telegram by displaced families.

Of 14 numbers called, The Post could only reach three drivers. Two said they could no longer offer rides — one had his truck battery stolen, another couldn’t afford fuel.

Mohamed Khaled, his parents, two sisters and four brothers paid $700 for a ride from Rafah to the al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza on Monday.

He wished they didn’t have to leave. “All the aid was in Rafah,” he said. “There is no safety in all of Gaza, but Rafah was better in that sense.”

Now on their ninth displacement, his family shares a two-room house with another sister, her husband and two children. The building was damaged in a bombing last week, he said, but is still standing.

“I feel nothing,” he said. “We have gotten used to this.”

Hazem Balousha and Heba Farouz Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.

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