Panic and despair spread across Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah after a night of intense bombardment where more than 1 million people – at least half of the territory’s population – fled seeking shelter but now fear an Israeli ground assault.
“Last night was the heaviest night that we witnessed since we fled to Rafah. It reminded us of what we endured in the northern parts of Gaza, in Gaza City and again in Khan Younis,” said Yousef Hammash of the Norwegian Refugee Council, sheltering in Rafah with his family.
He described how he feared even looking out of the window during a night of fierce attacks across Rafah that killed at least 67 people according to health authorities and as many as 100 people according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa. The strikes – launched by Israel while rescuing two hostages held by Hamas – were so intense, he said, that he believed that an Israeli ground operation had already begun.
At least half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is crammed into Rafah, a city that previously housed a fraction of that amount. Some have found dwindling space in houses, hospitals or other buildings, while others huddle in makeshift shelters and tents and thousands sleep on the streets.
“People were forced to flee from other parts of Gaza, and they came here to have a sense of safety, which we lost since the Israeli media and [the prime minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu started talking about expanding the Israeli military operation in Rafah,” Hammash said.
Israeli officials have begun openly discussing a deeper southern advance. But for those in Rafah, including at least 600,000 children according to Unicef, most fear there is simply nowhere left to go.
Plans for a ground assault on Rafah were last week requested by Netanyahu, along with a plan “for evacuating the population”, which was followed two days later by the US president, Joe Biden, warning the Israeli prime minister not to launch any operation “without a credible and executable plan” for the safety of those sheltering there.
The Palestinian foreign ministry said on Monday the death toll from the strikes proved the warnings of “the catastrophic consequences” of an attack. The Israeli military did not respond when contacted for comment about whether they intended to provide safe passage for those in Rafah.
Haneen Harara, who works for a Dutch environmental organisation and is in Rafah with her family, said the strikes were so intense that she began thinking of how to evacuate her three children, all under 10, to Egypt.
But paying an estimated $6,000 (£4,750) a child in brokers’ fees was unaffordable, she said. Instead, the family tried to focus on celebrating her six-year-old son’s birthday.
“I bought him strawberries, as they’re expensive and now hard to find,” she said, now almost £13 a kilo. Harara tried to make do with 250g. “He deserves something special, and there are no cake supplies,” she said.
Hammash said some families among the tens of thousands displaced three or even four times before arriving in Rafah had begun using the coastal road to flee north to Deir al-Balah and Nuseirat camps in Gaza’s middle area, although these have also come under attack.
“Unfortunately there are no options for us, and when you think about it, it’s really difficult to regain any sense of safety. The middle area is already overcrowded: there are several camps with makeshift shelters all over Deir al-Balah which is the main destination for those fleeing Rafah. But there isn’t room there to accommodate the 1.3 million people who are here,” he said.
“Rafah was the final destination for most people … the families that are here have fled four or five times now, and they are now locked between the Egyptian border and the Israeli tanks that are conducting ground operations in Khan Younis.”
The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an organisation that tracks developments in the area around the Rafah crossing, shared video showing Egyptian forces adding barbed wire reinforcements atop the concrete fence that runs along Gaza’s southern border. Egypt has also reportedly deployed about 40 tanks and armoured personnel carriers to the north-eastern Sinai peninsula.
Cairo has expressed alarm that an Israeli push into Rafah could force Palestinians to flee into the Sinai. Two Egyptian officials and a western diplomat told the Associated Press on Sunday that Cairo is threatening to suspend its participation in the historic 1978 peace treaty with Israel if it goes ahead with the offensive.
Sayed Ghoneim, an Egyptian security analyst and former major-general, said he was hopeful that Washington could intervene. “The US will never allow violations of the peace treaty, as the sponsor,” he said. “There is clearly some mistrust from the Israeli side towards the Egyptians. Coordination between Israel and Egypt needs to return.”