Terrified families flee Rafah as Israel set to open all-out assault

More than a hundred thousand Palestinians fled Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, on Saturday, after Israeli warnings to evacuate before an imminent military assault that will open a bloody new phase of the seven-month-long conflict.

Roads leading out of Rafah were choked with long columns of young and old, sick and healthy, riding in overloaded pick-up trucks and battered cars, in pony carts and on hand-pulled trolleys. Many walked, carrying their belongings, under a searing summer sun. Some were pushed in wheelchairs or even carried.

More people each day have fled Rafah since the Israel Defense Forces ordered the evacuation of eastern neighbourhoods shortly before seizing the border crossing with Egypt to the east of the city on Tuesday in what the IDF said was a “precise, limited operation” to stop Hamas smuggling weapons or funds into Gaza.

The total is now than 280,000, according to a count by United Nations officials in the city, with almost half leaving in the last 24 hours.

The attack last week now seems only to have been a precursor to the wider assault long threatened by Israel, despite repeated calls for restraint from the UN, humanitarian agencies and close allies.

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Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has rejected US pressure to hold off a full-scale attack on Rafah, saying that Hamas has based most of its top leaders and remaining forces there, leading the Biden administration to pause delivery of 3,500 bombs. Last week Netanyahu said that Israel would “stand alone” and fight with “fingernails” if necessary.

The IDF instructed residents to evacuate central Rafah early on Saturday morning, via leaflets and messages on social media. Analysts said this suggested Israeli forces would advance into the centre of Rafah as early as Sunday, and were likely to continue through the entire city.

In a statement, the IDF said its forces “continue to act against the Hamas terrorist organisation, which uses the residents of Gaza as human shields for its terrorist activities and infrastructure.”

About a million people displaced from elsewhere in Gaza have been sheltering in Rafah for months. The city is now “emptying out”, UN officials there told the Observer, with further huge numbers expected to leave on Sunday in one of the largest displacements for many months. ENDNEW

“We are now in a state of extreme tension and anxiety,” said Dina Zayed, 54, who has been in Rafah for six months since fleeing north Gaza shortly after the war began. “We don’t know what will happen to us. We are going towards the unknown. Everyone feels the same. Our coming days will be difficult.”

There are grave concerns for the security of those fleeing to the “expanded humanitarian zone”, designated by the IDF at al-Mawasi on the coast, where aid workers said conditions were already horrific.

Muhammad Qahman, 54, said he was concerned about conditions at al-Mawasi, a strip of sandy coast and dunes packed with hundreds of thousands of displaced people who have overwhelmed entirely inadequate supplies of food, clean water and healthcare. Sanitation barely exists, leading to the rapid spread of disease.

“We don’t know what we will do. We are now preparing our things to go to the area designated by the Israeli army, which is supposed to be safe and a humanitarian area, but this is just a lie,” said Qahman, who has been living in Rafah since January.

Closure of the Rafah border crossing to Egypt and the difficulties in reaching the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel because of the fighting mean limited aid is reaching southern and central Gaza.

Aid agencies say fuel supplies are running low, though Israel said it delivered 200,000 litres of fuel to Gaza on Friday through Kerem Shalom – the amount the United Nations says is needed every day to keep aid trucks moving and hospital generators working. It was unclear whether UN workers had been able to collect the fuel.

The IDF also signalled new offensives in northern Gaza and called on anyone living there to move elsewhere. Fighting has flared in areas west and north of Gaza City where Hamas has been able to re-establish a presence after Israeli forces withdrew.

So far, more than 34,970 Palestinians, mainly women and children, have been killed during the Israeli offensive, which was launched after Hamas killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 hostages in a surprise attack on southern Israel in October.

About 132 Israeli hostages are believed to remain in Gaza, though up to half may now be dead.

Hamas said on Saturday that Nadav Popplewell, a 51-year-old male British-Israeli hostage, had died of wounds sustained in an Israeli airstrike more than a month ago. There was no confirmation of the claim.

Last week hopes briefly rose of a ceasefire but they were dashed when Israel rejected an agreement proposed by mediators.

Israeli officials told the Ynet news site that hostage and ceasefire negotiations with Hamas had not completely broken down. Indirect talks would resume “if there are answers from Hamas that we can work with”, they said.

Hamas said on Friday that efforts to reach a truce were back to square one after Israel rejected a plan from international mediators, while the White House expressed its commitment to try keeping the sides engaged “if only virtually”.

Demonstrations were expected across Israel on Saturday, calling for the government to reach an agreement for the release of the hostages.

On Friday the US said there was reasonable evidence that Israel had breached international law protecting civilians in its conduct of the war against Hamas – the strongest statement yet from the Biden administration on the issue.

In response to the US report, Ophir Falk, a foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, said that Israel acted in compliance with the laws of armed conflict and the army was taking extensive measures to avert civilian casualties, including alerting people to military operations via phone calls and text messages.