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Palestinians have begun streaming out of Rafah ahead of an anticipated Israeli attack on the southern city that hosts some 1.5mn displaced Gazans.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that a military operation in Rafah is essential to root out Hamas militants from Gaza, although there are no signs yet of an imminent ground offensive.
Over four months of war, Israeli evacuation orders have pushed civilians towards Rafah, the southernmost city on the border with Egypt, as Israel’s military has bombarded the territory and ground forces swept through it.
Rafah is the base of the UN humanitarian operation to support civilians in Gaza. Many of the displaced people who fled to the city, which is currently home to more than half the territory’s population, have been forced to move their families multiple times in search of safety.
Israel has in recent days stepped up air strikes on targets in Rafah. Israeli forces also mounted a rescue mission to free two hostages from an apartment in central Rafah early on Monday. At least 67 Palestinians were killed when Israel conducted air strikes on surrounding buildings including Hamas targets in the vicinity.
In the wake of the Israeli operation, many displaced families living in makeshift shelters began to dismantle their tents and collect belongings to leave the city.
Thaer Mohamed, displaced with his family from Khan Younis, said they had endured “a night of horror”, during the Israeli rescue mission. The next day he travelled to the city of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza to find a new place for his family.
“We’ll stay temporarily in a small room with two other families until I can find a location for a tent,” he said. “We’re trying to escape death but it’s all around us.”
Sarah Nayef, whose family of twelve was living in Rafah having first been displaced three months ago, said she was desperate. “They’ve left us no place to escape. The night they rescued the hostages, missiles rained down and I thought we’d be killed.” The family now planned to join relatives in a tent in a coastal area of the territory.
Israel launched its military campaign in Gaza in response to Hamas’ October 7 attack on the south of the country, which Israeli officials say killed 1,200 people. More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s offensive that has laid waste to the territory and sparked a humanitarian crisis.
Aid agencies and western officials have warned that a ground offensive in Rafah would be catastrophic, given the density of people crammed there, while the US has urged Israel to refrain from any assault until “credible” arrangements are made to protect civilian lives.
Netanyahu has said he has asked the military to produce a plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah, although UN officials have warned that there is nowhere safe in Gaza.
“We have not received any official communication or request from the Israeli authorities regarding evacuations from Rafah,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson of the UN humanitarian office. “Regardless, the UN does not participate in forced, non-voluntary evacuations.”
Laerke added: “Civilians must be protected whether they move or stay, and humanitarian relief must be allowed for civilians in need wherever they are.”