Gaza: Netanyahu orders evacuation of Rafah in preparation for ground invasion

With more than half of the Gaza Strip's population sheltering in the city of Rafah, terrified Palestinians are wondering where they have left to run as Israel prepares for a ground assault, ITV News' Geraint Vincent reports

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered troops to evacuate the population of Rafah ahead of an expected invasion of the Gaza town.

Netanyahu made the announcement on Friday following international criticism of Israel’s plan to invade the crowded town on Egypt's border.

Israel says Rafah is the last remaining Hamas stronghold and it needs to send in troops to complete its war plan against them.

More than half of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million people have fled to Rafah, heeding Israeli evacuation orders ahead of the military’s expanding ground offensive.

Before the war, the city's population was around 280,000. Conditions are becoming increasingly desperate, with people sheltering in makeshift camps - tents built with flimsy materials - and in overcrowded apartment buildings, according to Human Rights Watch.

Nadia Hardman, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at the NGO said: “Forcing the over one million displaced Palestinians in Rafah to again evacuate without a safe place to go would be unlawful and would have catastrophic consequences.

"There is nowhere safe to go in Gaza. The international community should take action to prevent further atrocities."

“We’re exhausted. Seriously, we’re exhausted. Israel can do whatever it wants. I’m sitting in my tent. I’ll die in my tent,” said Jihan al-Hawajri, who fled multiple times from the far north down the length of the Gaza Strip and now lives with 30 relatives in a tent. UN officials warn that an attack on Rafah will be catastrophic, with more than 600,000 children there in the path of an assault.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders warned the offensive in Rafah would be "a dramatic escalation in this ongoing massacre".

"There is no place that is safe in Gaza and no way for people to leave," the charity said in a statement.

Netanyahu said a “massive operation” is needed in Rafah and asked security officials to present a “double plan” that would include the evacuation of civilians and a military operation to “collapse” remaining Hamas militant units.

However, it is unclear where Palestinians have left to run, and even Israel's greatest ally, the US, has been critical of the imminent assault.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters on Thursday that to “conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster,” adding: “This is not something that we’d support.”

Even in areas of refuge, such as Rafah, Israel routinely launches air strikes against what it says are Hamas targets.

Evacuation orders now cover the majority of the besieged enclave.

Many of the families in Rafah are displaced Palestinians forced out of their homes by Israel's operation. Credit: AP

It comes after at least nine people, including children and women, have been killed in overnight airstrikes in Rafah.

Hospital staff and witnesses claim the bombardment came from Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), but the IDF is yet to take responsibility for the attack.

Despite Mr Patel's recent warning, Washington has continued its whole-hearted military and diplomatic support for Israel’s campaign despite Israel shrugging off its previous calls to reduce civilian casualties.

Israel widened its evacuation orders as its forces moved south – yet the death toll in Gaza has continued to mount. Israel says Hamas is responsible for concentrating its forces in civilian areas. Rafah lies trapped between Egypt to the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to its east and Israeli troops to its north.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah on Friday. Credit: AP

Earlier in the war, Israel declared a sliver of rural area on the coast neighboring Rafah, known as Muwasi, to be a safe zone. But in recent weeks it has bombarded the zone and sent troops to seize parts of it. Many Palestinians in Rafah came from Gaza City and other parts of the north and want to return there. But so far Israel has shown no willingness to allow a mass movement back north, where it says its troops largely have operational control but still fight pockets of Hamas fighters. Egypt has staunchly refused any mass exodus of Palestinians onto its soil, fearing Israel will not allow them to return. Israel is not likely to let hundreds of thousands of Palestinians take shelter on its own territory.

Rafah's population has more than quintupled since the war as Palestinians stream in to escape fighting. Credit: AP

A large area of empty dunes between the town of Rafah and the sea is now built up with a dense tent city erected by those streaming in over the past month. When winter rains hit, the area turns to cold mud, seeping into tents full of extended families with children. Women hang up bedding on clotheslines in the morning to keep them dry during the day, then lay them on the ground at night to sleep.

UN officials say 90% of Gaza’s population is eating less than one meal a day, and a quarter of the population faces outright famine, mainly in the north, where Israeli restrictions have blocked many aid convoys. Rafah is the heart of the aid campaign, with trucks entering from Egypt or from a nearby Israeli crossing for distribution across the Gaza Strip.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said: “Any large-scale military operation among this population can only lead to additional layers of endless tragedy."

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