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Damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023 (Wafa Agency via Wikimedia Commons)

As Israel Ramps Up Rafah Attacks, Is Any Safe Place Left in Gaza?

… to many displaced Palestinians in the Strip, Rafah was meant to be the last refuge.

Words: Mohammed Ali*
Pictures: Wafa Agency

More than seven months into Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, Farida al-Ghoul is among the hundreds of thousands of people desperately searching for respite. The 27-year-old English teacher and her family first fled the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, an area Israeli forces have largely leveled. From there, her family went on to Deir al-Balah, Khan Younis, al-Nusirat, and al-Qarara, each stop another milestone in their desperate quest to survive. “I lost count of how many times I had to comply with evacuation orders,” she said. 

Her family isn’t alone. A joint United Nations and World Bank report estimates that the war has left more than a million Palestinians in Gaza without homes and has displaced 75% of the Strip’s population. Amid “a very harsh journey of displacement,” she said, she and some 30 relatives ended up in a tent east of Rafah, the city that hugs the Gaza-Egypt border. There, Israeli fire has killed a growing number of people in the area. 

Along with around half of the Strip’s population, they had hoped that Rafah would be the last stop in their search for refuge, but in recent days, Israel has ramped up its attacks on the area. 

False Hopes of Ceasefire

On Oct. 7, Hamas-led militants launched a cross-border excursion, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 240 people hostage. Throughout the last seven months, Israel has carried out the largest, longest, and most destructive of its five wars on Gaza since 2009. The war has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, the Gaza-based health ministry said Sunday. 

Recent news that Hamas had approved a ceasefire brought a momentary glimmer of hope. “The moment we knew about Hamas’s approval, it was a moment of hope that finally this suffering would end and we would return to our warm homes,” Farida said.

For her, the children’s excitement was infectious, and their laughter was a rare melody amid the sounds of war. “Honestly, the joy of children in that moment excited us that this will finally end.”

Yet, beneath the surface, Farida, as an experienced survivor of many wars in Gaza, harbored a cautious skepticism. “Deep inside, I knew there’s still a harder time left for us to live,” she admitted.

As Farida and her family celebrated this fragile hope, the reality of their situation remained. The distant rumble of bombings continued to sound off through the air. “We lived the moment of joy about Hamas’s approval while the sound of bombings was thundering, and I couldn’t settle on the feeling of happiness and calm and the bombing falling on Rafah,” Farida explained. 

Another Evacuation Order 

The following day brought grim news.  The Israeli army issued a direct warning to evacuate their area, designating it a combat zone. “The army called my brother directly to evacuate the area,” Farida said, the look on, her face reflecting the gravity of the threat. With urgency and precision, they gathered what they could carry—”what is light in weight but much worth of value,” as Farida described it. “We carried our basic items along with our children, and we evacuated around 7 p.m. under the intense bombing of the area.” 

We decided to flee anywhere we could find a place for our tent.

– Farida al-Ghoul

Under the cloak of night, their escape was a scene of frantic movement and whispered prayers. “We decided to evacuate, but had no idea where to go!” Farida clarifies, her voice rising with the remembered panic. “Where to go? There’s no place safe at all,” Farida monologued her thoughts. The darkness was their only cover, and the path ahead was uncertain and fraught with danger. She added, “We decided to flee anywhere we could find a place for our tent.”

As the Israeli tanks started the invasion of eastern Rafah on Monday night, the operation was claimed to seize control of the Rafah Border Crossing — such a move marked a devastating blow for Gaza’s civilians. The crossing has served as Gaza’s vital lifeline for aid and travel. 

Israel Ignores Warnings

In the US, the administration of President Joe Biden has repeatedly pressed Israel to avoid an offensive in Rafah without a solid evacuation plan for civilians. Similarly, Egypt has repeatedly cautioned Israel against proceeding with military action in Rafah, warning that such actions could breach a peace treaty established between the two nations more than four decades ago.

For civilians, the Rafah invasion deepened the humanitarian catastrophe. As Israeli forces intensified their  bombardment in Rafah, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, highlighted the growing crisis. “Around 110,000 people have now fled Rafah looking for safety. But, nowhere is safe in the Gaza Strip and living conditions are atrocious. The only hope is an immediate ceasefire,” the agency posted on X.  

“It’s a public and blatant execution for two million people in Gaza,” Farida said. “It’s not only about dying as a result of bombings but also from hunger, heat, and insects invading our tents.”

“Exceeded Our Capacity to Comprehend” 

“Everything that has been happening has exceeded our capacity to comprehend what happened to us,” Farida explained. “Setting your tent in a new place means you have no idea how to supply your family with food, water, and every basic need.” 

Each new location has brought its own challenges, including the search for essentials like food and water. In the desolate al-Mawasi area, Farida and her family now find themselves in a harsh, unforgiving landscape, the absence of basic services turning their daily existence into a fight against the elements. “Here in al-Mawasi area, we have no hospitals, nothing at all,” she explained. “It’s like you are living in a desert; that’s what it means — an expansion of operations in Rafah. There will be no life at all for those who end up in Rafah.” 

“Fourth Time We’ve Been Displaced”

A few blocks away from Farida, Assem Ghanem, a 21-year-old journalism student from Gaza City, has also endured the dreadful conditions that the civilians in the makeshift shelters all over the Gaza Strip have faced. Ghanem’s family, consisting of six members, has endured displacement four times, fleeing the relentless Israeli bombardment from Gaza City to Deir al-Balah, to Khan Younis, and finally to Rafah. 

Yet, Rafah also proved to be temporary.

Amid the chaos of the Israeli military relentlessly bombing  Rafah, Assem said, “This is the fourth time we have been displaced.”

Like Farida and her relatives, the al-Ghanem family experienced a rare moment of happiness following the announcement that Hamas had approved the Qatari and Egyptian ceasefire proposal. Scenes of happiness, laughter, tears, and dancing filled the streets of Gaza. 

“200 Days Under Bombing” 

“We had spent more than 200 days under the bombing,” Ghanem recalled. “When I heard such news, it was normal for me to be flying with joy that this war would end, that death and genocide would stop, and that we would return to our homes.” 

The thought of peace, however fleeting, offered hope amid the war-torn reality. Yet, the Israel army’s immediate announcement of evacuation orders for Rafah has shattered their brief respite. “It was a very bad feeling. A sudden call at 7 a.m. from my uncle informing us that our area was declared a combat zone,” Ghanem said. “We were prepared for this news. As everyone knows, there was a lot of talk recently about invading Rafah, and we were very nervous.” 

On the day of the evacuation, the urgency was overwhelming. “We did not finish gathering our things and left the house,” Ghanem said, his words hurried as if reliving the scramble to escape.

The family hastily packed essentials, leaving behind a single room they rented in a shared apartment along with other displaced families — a place meant to be temporary, yet again, turned into a home filled with memories and belongings they might never see again. He recalled, “The Israeli artillery shelling completely flattened the area in eastern Rafah.” 

Their journey to safety was laden with anxiety and uncertainty. They sought refuge in a family friend’s home in Deir al-Balah — another city that also contained hundreds of thousands of displaced families. “We went to the city of Deir al-Balah in a small room in the house of my father’s friend,” he said.

Soaring Prices

Death hasn’t been the only issue families were afraid of, but also the soaring prices that forced them to sell almost everything, including the desperately needed aid packages they received from UN agencies. The escalating cost of renting apartments, driven by the surge in displaced people, has added another layer of hardship.

“The soaring rates of renting apartments have risen insanely with the increase in the number of displaced people in various cities of the Gaza Strip,” he said.

The way Ghanem told it, his thoughts frequently drift to those left behind in Rafah, including the families he shared the apartment with and the friendships he made in the temporary makeshift shelters nearby. “Our hearts will be with our family, relatives, loved ones, and friends who have not been able to go out yet due to the difficult circumstances,” he said. 

Despite the trials, Ghanem remains hopeful. “I hope that this time of evacuation will be the last one for us,” he said, his voice a mixture of determination and longing. He envisions an end to the conflict that has plagued his homeland for so long. “I hope that this will be the final and decisive one in the negotiations and that the war, killing, and extermination to which more than two and a half million Gazans are subjected will be stopped,” he said.

For her part, Farida said she has fallen into deep despair. “I know there will be no ceasefire in Gaza [for] years,” she explained, “and I know I will be the next victim of a brutality the world witnesses in live broadcasts.”

Mohammed Ali*

*Mohammed Ali is a journalist from Gaza.

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