Israel-Gaza conflict: How have so many people ended up in Rafah?

Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip. Credit: AP

By ITV News Producer Hannah Ward-Glenton

More than 1.5 million people are currently living in the town of Rafah in southern Gaza - that's more than six times its pre-war population and three quarters of Gaza's entire population.

So why have so many people fled to the town, how are they living, and where will they go next?

Why are there so many people in Rafah?

After the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza conflict, triggered by Hamas' attacks on Israel on October 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to destroy the terrorist group and claim "total victory".

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) then issued its first evacuation order on October 13, telling civilians to leave the north of Gaza, where it planned to attack and target tunnels built beneath buildings in the city.

"The IDF calls for the evacuation of all civilians of Gaza City from their homes southwards for their own safety and protection and move to the area south of the Wadi Gaza," the military said in a statement.

That first order applied to around 1.1 million people, including 650,000 residents of Gaza City, and they were given 24 hours to vacate their homes.

International organisations were quick to criticise the order.

These photos are an aerial view of Rafah on October 13, 2023 compared to January 14, 2024, showing the huge influx of people who have been displaced since the onset of the Israel-Hamas conflict

“Protecting civilians does not mean ordering more than 1 million people to evacuate to the south, where there is no shelter, no food, no water, no medicine and no fuel, and then continuing to bomb the south itself,” Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said at the time.

Following the order took a lot of people to Khan Younis, the second-largest city in Gaza, but in December the IDF started telling Palestinians there to leave their homes and head west towards the Mediterranean Sea.

People were encouraged to move towards Deir Al-Balah, but Israel continued to bombard the city, killing some of those who sought refuge there.

As a result, 1.5 million people have ended up in Gaza's southernmost town of Rafah, which is on the Egyptian border.

Almost two million people have been displaced since the start of the conflict, according to the UN, which is 80% of Gaza's population.

What is it like in Rafah?

Most of the people in Rafah are crammed into tents, shelters and overflowing apartments, and there is a serious shortage of the most basic essentials.

Mohammed Al Khatib, senior programme manager at charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, told ITV News' Roohi Hasan about his family's living conditions.

"Without nappies anything is used ... In my case, I used to cover my kids in two nappies, each tied to the other so they would last longer. Instead of nappies, others wrapped up their kids in nylon to prevent (much) leakage," Mr Al Khatib said.

"This was done additionally to warm them up because they had to wear four layers – three of summer T-shirts and one of winter blouse," he added.

Palestinians look at destruction from the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah. Credit: AP

Oxfam’s Officer in Rafah Al hasan Swairjo told ITV News about the heavy bombardment around the area.

"They targeted too many houses in the neighbourhood I’m sheltering in. The building I was sheltering in was shaking.

"The window above my children broke and the broken glass spread in all the room. The children were very scared and crying. We just tried, me and their mum tried to calm them down and make them safe or feel safe."

And international authorities have warned that the situation is only going to worsen.

The UN's Relief Chief Martin Griffiths said a dreaded scenario is unravelling "at alarming speed," with people in Rafah left with little to eat, hardly any access to medical care, and nowhere to sleep.

What happens to people in Rafah now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Rafah is the last remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza after more than four months of war.

“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah," Mr Netanyahu’s office said. "On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.”

Mr Netanyahu said on February 9 that he had ordered the military to prepare a plan to evacuate Rafah. The main question is where people taking shelter in Rafah, most of whom have already been displaced multiple times, are supposed to go next.

The Israeli offensive has caused widespread destruction, particularly in northern Gaza, meaning that even if people could travel back to their original homes, hundreds of thousands of people do not have homes to return to.

Crossing into Egypt also isn't an option. While the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt serves as the main entry point for humanitarian aid, Egypt has warned that the movement of Palestinians across the border would threaten the four-decade-old peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Israel has already started to strike Rafah from the air, with attacks having killed civilians in the last week, and there are now fears of a ground invasion in the area.

World leaders and aid organisations have warned against the plan, with US President Joe Biden saying Israel should not go ahead with a ground invasion without a "credible and executable" plan to protect civilians.

What was Rafah like before the war?

Rafah had a population of around 280,000 before the war, but its history and geography means it has often been a key location during conflicts.

Wars have erupted between Gaza and Israel multiple times since 2008 and so Rafah was a conflict epicentre long before Hamas attacked Israel in October 2023.

Palestinian children stand at the Gaza side of the border in Rafah in 2009. Credit: AP

The Rafah border crossing is the only official means of travelling between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The rules as to who can cross the border, when, and for what reasons have been changed frequently over the last couple of decades,

In the last couple of decades residents have been forcibly displaced multiple times.

In past cycles of violence between Israel and Hamas, missiles from Gaza or attacks on Israeli military vehicles provoked heavy Israeli retaliation that led to widespread destruction of buildings and high civilian casualties.

International pressure forced Israel to curtail the retaliation on previous occasions, but peace and comfortable living conditions certainly aren't the norm for people living in Rafah.

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