Palestinians sheltering in Rafah fear impending Israeli ground offensive

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By Adam Durbin & Alys Davies
BBC News

A Palestinian doctor in Rafah has said people are terrified about the prospect of an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza’s southern-most city, after a night of some of the worst air strikes he has experienced since arriving there.

In a series of messages sent to the BBC by phone overnight, Dr Ahmed Abuibaid described the air strikes as incessant and everywhere.

“[The] most popular question on people’s minds is, where can we go?” he said.

Last week, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had ordered troops to prepare to expand its ground operation into Rafah.

More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is now crammed into the city on the border with Egypt, which was home to only 250,000 people before the war between Israel and Hamas.

Many of the displaced people are living in makeshift shelters or tents in squalid conditions, with scarce access to safe drinking water or food.

On Monday, UN human rights chief Volker Türk warned that an assault on Rafah would be “terrifying, given the prospect that an extremely high number of civilians, again mostly children and women, will likely be killed and injured”.

He also said it could mean that the “meagre” humanitarian aid getting into Gaza might stop, with most deliveries currently going through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border crossing.

His warning follows an unusually sharp criticism from the US last week, with President Joe Biden calling Israel’s retaliatory campaign in Gaza “over the top” and the White House stating that Israel should not mount an operation in Rafah without proper planning to ensure civilians were not harmed.

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Those comments were echoed by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who urged allies of Israel on Monday to stop sending weapons as “too many people” are being killed in Gaza.

The UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, also said Israel should “stop and think seriously” before taking further action in Rafah.

In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu said Israel was “working out a detailed plan” to move civilians to areas north of the city.

“Victory is within reach,” he said. “Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying, ‘lose the war, keep Hamas there.'”

The Israeli military launched a large-scale air and ground campaign in Gaza after Hamas gunmen killed more than 1,200 people in southern Israel on 7 October and took 253 other people hostage.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says more than 28,100 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting since then.

Dr Abuibaid took this picture of a crater in Rafah caused by what he said was an Israeli air strike

One of the displaced people in Rafah is Dr Abuibaid, who was forced to abandon his job at Nasser Hospital in the nearby city of Khan Younis after his home was destroyed in an Israeli air strike and his father suffered a traumatic spinal injury.

He is now facing the possibility of having to move out of Rafah – but it is unclear where would be safe for him to go.

“People are very scared about a possible military ground operation soon in the city,” he said.

Overnight Israeli strikes from Sunday into Monday, carried out during a operation to rescue two Israeli hostages, frightened many others who have sought refuge in the city.

Abo Mohamed Attya said he was sleeping in a tent with his family when he woke up to the sound of the bombardment.

“Suddenly… missiles are being hit everywhere and firing as well and airplanes everywhere, all of this is on the tents and the people in the streets,” he told the BBC.

Mr Attya, who previously fled Nuseirat refugee camp in the middle of the Gaza Strip after receiving Israeli evacuation orders, complained that there had been no warning from the Israeli military that they were going to target Rafah overnight.

“We hoped there was a warning to evacuate like they did in Nuseirat and we went to Rafah. We would have went out of Rafah to anywhere they told us. We have no problem, we would evacuate for our children,” he explained.

The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen on why Rafah is Israel’s next military focus, and what it could mean

The Hamas-run Palestinian health ministry said at least 67 people were killed in the Israeli strikes and hostage rescue raid in Rafah overnight.

“There is no safe place anymore; nowhere is safe, even the hospitals are unsafe. One hopes to die instead,” Mr Attya said.

Aside from the continuing threat of Israeli air strikes and an impending ground operation, the situation for people in Rafah is made more difficult by the dire living conditions, with little access to water, food and sanitation, and rapidly dwindling medical supplies.

Dr Abuibaid said he had observed many diseases among the people in Rafah and that they had been exacerbated by the “severe decrease in the availability of drugs and treatment”.

Another medic in Rafah, who did not want to be named, told the BBC that many people were living in cramped and unsanitary conditions.

“I live here with 20 people in two rooms… and I know people that are 100 people in three rooms.”

“We don’t have water to wash, we don’t have clothes, we don’t have the option to do hygiene stuff,” he said.

“My friends, all of the people I meet… all of them are having at least flu, cholera, diarrhoea, scabies, hepatitis A – which is a newcomer for us – and it’s getting worse and worse.”

“And the aid is less as the siege is increasing, the war is increasing, [Israeli soldiers] are getting closer to Rafah, and it feels very scary right now”, he said.

Despite being located next to the only crossing point for goods and people between Gaza and Egypt, Rafah has not received nearly enough aid to satisfy the needs of the people there.

One man in the city told the BBC that currently people were waiting days for aid deliveries, and that when they did arrive, supplies of water were insufficient.

“We can’t find water nor do we get enough of it, our throats are dry from the shortage of water,” another woman in Rafah said.

The head of the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which is the largest humanitarian organization in Gaza, said on Monday that civil order was breaking down, with members of the local Hamas-run police force being killed or reluctant to protect aid lorries because of fears for their own safety.

“Yesterday, for the first time, the UN could not operate with a minimum of protection, which was local police. And because we had no local police, our trucks, our convoys at the border have been looted, and trucks have been vandalised by hundreds of young people.”

‘No idea’ where to go

For some of the displaced, however, fears of what could come next are even overriding their daily anxieties of finding drinkable water and food.

“Before we were thinking about starvation for the food, for the shortage of water and electricity. But now we are traumatised about what’s the next step, where we should go. This is our daily life right now,” Ibrahim Isbaita told the BBC.

Asked where he and his family are considering going if they had to leave Rafah, Mr Isbaita said: “I have actually no idea.”

He said his mother needed dialysis treatment, which she is currently able to receive in Rafah when electricity supplies allow – though the treatment is less frequent than is needed. The fear is that if they move, she will not be able to find any treatment in the next place.

“I live besides the hospital because of my mother and we are trying our best to find a solution,” Mr Isbaita added.

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