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If Israel invades, Rafah will become a 'death zone'

If Israel invades, Rafah will become a 'death zone'
5 min read
14 February, 2024
In-depth: With Israel's ground invasion looming and most of Gaza's population trapped in Rafah, fears are mounting that the city could become a mass graveyard.

At 2 am on Sunday, Mohamed F. awoke to the sound of hailing gunfire in Rafah.

“I think they [Israeli forces] entered, and there were many, many clashes and shooting. Oh God, protect us,” he wrote in a text message.

The sound of bombs exploding could be heard in audio messages he sent.

“We don't care much about the house, but today we only care about staying alive and without injuries,” Mohamed F., who did not want his full name used, wrote.

With an Israeli ground invasion looming and the majority of Gaza’s population crammed into the southern city, fears are mounting Rafah could soon turn into a mass graveyard.

“These people are already traumatised, they lost homes, family members, have no access to hospitals and are increasingly trapped between walls, the sea, and the Israeli military,” Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud told The New Arab. “Where will up to 1.5 million people go when the Israeli tanks arrive?”

Human rights defenders and aid organisations say attacking Rafah will spell catastrophe.

“This is literally the last haven that is left for people,” Ahmed Bayram, Middle East media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said, stressing how the conditions in Rafah are inhumane.

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Rafah was already overcrowded before the war with a population of approximately 280,000. Now that number has ballooned, with 1.7 million displaced Palestinians crammed within the governorate’s 63 square kilometres of space.

Palestinians in Rafah are living in overcrowded apartments or makeshift camps built with flimsy materials unable to stand the stressors of winter.

With shelters at maximum capacity, hundreds are sleeping on the street. They lack clean water. Disease is rampant. And starvation is imminent as most survive on bird seed and rotting food.

Aid workers worry that if Israel’s ground operation goes ahead, the aid system in Gaza will collapse.

During the war, Israel has forcibly displaced Palestinians to southern Gaza, where more than 1.7 million people are now trapped within the governorate's 63 square kilometres of space. [Getty]

“My colleagues are providing aid while looking over their shoulder and there are tanks in the distance,” Bayram said. “One of my colleagues in Rafah… his children haven't had a fresh meal in days.”

Bayram explained to TNA that civilians flocked to Rafah because that’s where aid groups are concentrated, but that assistance may cease to exist as Israeli rocket fire rains down on the area. More than 100 were killed on Monday in overnight Israeli airstrikes.

 “There's nowhere left that Israel hasn't touched. And then what happens to aid and what happens to aid workers?” Bayram said. “We can't operate in a death zone, and this is what Rafah is becoming.”

What is Israel's objective?

Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, was meant to be a safe zone as Israel pushed Palestinians further and further down the Strip. Israel even declared the city as such, but now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Rafah is the last Hamas stronghold and storming it is key for Israel’s victory.

“After they spent four months urging people to run away south with the hope of pushing them into the Sinai desert, the Israeli government is making the same ridiculous claims that the problem is now Rafah,” Baroud said.

Israeli officials allege tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt lie beneath Rafah and operate as a Hamas smuggling channel. Baroud, though, refutes this.

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“They claim that Hamas feeds through tunnels between Rafah and Egypt, but the Egyptians, with the help of the United States and under the supervision of Israel, have already destroyed the tunnels and built a mammoth apparatus of walls, wires, and electronic devices that makes it impossible for any weapons to be smuggled into Gaza,” Baroud told TNA.

Egypt destroyed the main smuggling tunnels years ago and according to an investigation by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, Egypt’s military continued eliminating new tunnels until at least late 2020.

A New York Times investigation found most of Hamas’ weaponry isn’t from smuggling, but rather recycled from unexploded missiles fired into Gaza by Israel as well as arms stolen from Israeli military bases.

Israel is facing a swarm of international scrutiny ahead of its ground offensive, which Mairav Zonszein, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), said could threaten regional stability in the Middle East.

“Is Israel going to take the fact that it could destabilise its relationship with Egypt and undermine the stability of the region by doing it?” Zonszein said.

Israel's war - which has killed 28,000 people - has already left most of the Gaza Strip uninhabitable, with Rafah the last refuge for Palestinians. [Getty]

Reports initially circulated that Israel’s decades-long peace agreement with Egypt was in danger of being suspended if Israel proceeded with its offensive.

However, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the treaty will remain intact while expressing concerns an Israeli assault on Rafah could trigger a mass flood of refugees into Sinai.

“Everybody fears that the Israelis wouldn't let them back in,” Michael Omer-Man, Israel-Palestine researcher director at not-for-profit, Democracy for the Arab World Now, told TNA.

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At the start of the war, leaked government documents suggested Israel’s ultimate solution was the forcible transfer of Palestinians in Gaza to Sinai and the renewed Israeli occupation of the Strip. This sentiment has only been corroborated as Israeli lawmakers continue advocating this idea.

With the potential to disrupt regional relations, Israel’s pending ground attack also threatens its relationship with its biggest ally - the US.

“It would completely defy the United States at the one moment where it's actually starting to draw a red line,” Omer-Man said. “That could provide opportunities to start to change the US approach.”

With an unclear agenda and alliances breaking down, Israeli ambitions may not be in eliminating Hamas, but rather in its own founding ideology.

“Because of the absence of any other strategic objective that's been defined, you have to look at the objectives of Zionism,” Omer-Man said.

“Maximum land with minimum Palestinians and maintaining a regime of Jewish supremacy.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum