‘I am leaving for the unknown.’ Palestinians fleeing Rafah describe their fear and despair

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Palestinian civilians told to evacuate eastern Rafah by the Israeli military have described their fear and despair at being uprooted from their homes and shelters, as Israel airstrikes hit Gaza’s southernmost city.

There were hopes that the Rafah offensive would not go ahead after Hamas accepted a ceasefire proposal on Monday, but those were quickly dashed after Israel said the terms were “far from Israel’s necessary requirements” and it would continue “in order to exert military pressure” on the militant group.

By Tuesday morning, Israeli airstrikes on Rafah had killed 23 people, including a child, according to hospital officials in southern Gaza.

The Israeli military said it had “operational control” of the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing, a vital entry point to transport desperately needed aid into the enclave from its southern border with Egypt.

Hamas said the Israeli military’s move on Rafah constituted a “humanitarian catastrophe” that posed “a direct threat to more than 1.5 million displaced Palestinians.”

“(They) are striking everywhere without differentiating between children, adults, militants or non-militants. I left my house that I have been building for 17 years,” he added.

Ghanem and his wife were pushing strollers piled high with belongings. “We no longer have a home. We are heading to Mawasi because there is no safety with the Israelis. They are killing women and children.”

Another woman from eastern Rafah said, “The Israelis sent us messages ordering us to leave. We cannot stay.”

Earlier Monday, the Israeli military called on an estimated 100,000 Palestinians living in parts of eastern Rafah to “evacuate immediately,” telling them to move to Al-Mawasi, a coastal town near the city of Khan Younis that aid groups say is not appropriate for habitation.

The current war began on October 7 when Hamas militants killed more than 1,200 people in southern Israel and took more than 200 people hostage.

In the almost seven months since, Israel’s military bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 34,600 people, according to the Gaza health ministry, and driven more than 1 million Palestinians to seek refuge in Rafah, a city that the medical NGO Medicines San Frontieres said was absent of the “necessary conditions for survival.”

The move was described as “inhumane” by United Nations human rights chief Volker Türk and “beyond alarming” by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

Faisal Barbakh, who fled on his bicycle, said he is leaving a lifetime of memories behind “for the unknown.”

“I’m carrying all of my life here. My family is torn in seven places. I feel it’s the end of life. I can’t think anymore. I left 59 years of life behind, all of my memories, my children’s pictures, the contract of my house.”

Video and images from eastern Rafah showed trucks full of people’s belongings driving through the streets, which became increasingly crowded as Monday wore on. Children were seen sitting among tanks of fuel and plastic bags filled with possessions, and families left with mattresses strapped to the roof of their cars.

Many of those leaving eastern Rafah have been previously displaced multiple times as Israel’s focus has moved from city to city.

Israel takes ‘operational control’ of crossing

After the Israeli military stormed the Rafah crossing, Palestinian flags were replaced with Israeli flags, which according to photos on social media, could be seen mounted outside the main building.

The border crossing has been a key humanitarian aid portal, with as many as 300 trucks entering the strip through it each day, according to an announcement from Egypt last month.

Gaza’s Ministry of Interior and National Security warned that Rafah’s closure “exacerbates the humanitarian crisis” and “represents a policy of collective punishment against more than 2 million people.”

The ministry described the crossing as “a main lifeline for citizens in the Gaza strip” which “does not represent any threat to the Israeli occupation.”

Aid groups quickly expressed concern that the Israeli operation there could bring humanitarian relief efforts across the Gaza Strip to a standstill.

“Continued interruption of the entry of aid and fuel supplies at the Rafah crossing will halt the critical humanitarian response across the Gaza Strip,” the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said on X.

It added that the “catastrophic hunger faced by people especially in northern Gaza will get much worse if these supply routes are interrupted.”

In recent months, Israeli strikes have further deteriorated conditions for those living and sheltering in the city, including an estimated 600,000 children. Malnutrition is rapidly spreading and medical facilities are “rendered ineffective by the Israeli authorities’ siege,” Medicines San Frontieres said.

Two boys, Malek and Yousef, were making their own way of Rafah out on bicycles Monday, clinging to their bags. “We are running away from the Israelis. They warned us and ordered us to evacuate the eastern area. I have my clothes and food in the bag. We are going to our grandparents’ house,” one said.

No ‘safe zones’ in Gaza, EU’s top diplomat says

There has been a chorus of condemnation over the situation facing many in Rafah and other places in the strip after Israel ignored international calls against proceeding with the operation.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Tuesday that there were “no ‘safe zones’ in Gaza” after criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The land offensive against Rafah has started again, in spite of all of the requests of the international community – the US, the European Union member states – everybody asking Netanyahu not to attack Rafah,” Borrell said, adding: “I am afraid that this is going to cause again a lot of casualties, civilian casualties.”

“Yesterday, we saw thousands of people moving away from their homes or their camps in southeastern Rafah, many on foot, many using vehicles, using donkey carts, but there is a shortage of fuel. And not only there is no safe place to go, for many people, there’s no way to get there,” van Meegen said in a phone interview from Rafah.

For those that are able to travel the many kilometers to the coastal town near Khan Younis, they arrive to find it already crowded with displaced people, some of the new arrivals appearing confused and disorientated. The streets were packed with trucks and donkey carts, surrounded by huge piles of garbage.

“I came here from Rafah and didn’t find any place to stay. People even say we should leave [here]. I swear, I don’t know where to go. They distributed leaflets, and people panicked and started running away,” said Mohammad Abu Khamash.

UNRWA previously warned that Al-Mawasi is not appropriate for habitation.

Many of those fleeing on Monday said there is nowhere safe for them and their families.

“We had to endure airstrikes that put our lives and our children’s lives at risk. We left in search of a bit of dignified life that we can live with our families,” said Ahmad Safi, who left Rafah for Khan Younis with his family.

Safi said he searched for water every day and that “there is no safety anywhere.”

He continued, “There is no life. It is very complicated. I came to Khan Younis and I felt so depressed. It was a city full of life and happiness, but now it is not even suitable for living. We are eight family members. We came on a cart from Rafah. I am still in shock that we left Rafah.”

Rafah resident Abu Salah said he had left the city under heavy Israeli fire.

“Is safety being displaced from place to place like a cat with its children, begging for a bit of water and a coupon (for food)?” he said.

A woman called Maha said Palestinian civilians were at the mercy of the Israeli military.

“They can tell you to go here and kill you here, or they tell you to go there and they kill you there. They don’t want safety for us,” she said.

“The solution is to finish this cause, not only to stop the war, but to have a Palestinian state,” she added.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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