Israel-Gaza conflict: Where will Rafah's 1.4 million people go?

ITV News' Yasmin Bodalbhai explains the situation in Rafah - and why it has become a focal point of the war

By ITV News Producer Georgia Ziebart

Israel launched an anticipated offensive on Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, stoking fears of a full-scale military invasion.

The Israeli military said it had taken "operational control" of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing - the key remaining land route to get desperately needed aid into Gaza.

At least 23 Palestinians, including nine children, have been killed by Israeli air strikes in Rafah since Monday, according to local hospitals.

More than one million Palestinian civilians are sheltering in the city, and now face the prospect of having to evacuate.

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

Where will Palestinians in Rafah go?

About 1.4 million Palestinians - more than half of Gaza's population - are jammed into Rafah.

Earlier in the war, Israel had encouraged civilians to head south for their safety, but on Monday issued orders for the evacuation of 100,000 people from the city.

As of Friday, more than 80,000 people had fled Rafah since the orders, according to the UN.

Displaced Palestinians arrive in central Gaza after fleeing from Rafah. Credit: AP

Israel is now encouraging evacuees to move to Muwasi, an Israeli-declared safe zone that it says will be equipped with field hospitals and other facilities. But inhabitants say the patch of land is little more than a makeshift tent camp with squalid conditions.

Muwasi stretches roughly eight kilometres along the coastline from Rafah to another major southern city, Khan Younis.

Some 450,000 displaced Palestinians are currently sheltering in Muwasi. The UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, UNWRA, says the area is already overcrowded and does not have the facilities to take in more people.

Residents say toilets are scarce, and there is little running water. Many relieve themselves in walled holes they dig outside of their tents, to avoid long queues at public latrines. Palestinians say they sometimes wait hours to collect drinking water.

Where is Rafah?

Rafah lies trapped between Egypt to the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to its east and Israeli troops to the north.

Because of its border with Egypt, Rafah is one of two main arteries for the flow of aid into Gaza. The crossing is also the only exit for those able to flee to Egypt.

The other main entry point, Kerem Shalom, was shut after a rocket barrage killed four Israeli soldiers there earlier this week. Israel claims to have reopened that crossing, but UNWRA says no aid has passed through.

Palestinians line up for food in Rafah, January 9 Credit: AP

On Tuesday, Israel seized control of the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing, saying militants had staged attacks from the area.

With the Rafah crossing closed off, the UN warned of devastating consequences for the flow of aid to Palestinians.

On Friday, the UN said food and fuel were running out, because they are not receiving aid through the crossings.

Aid charities warn of crisis as Israel takes control of Rafah crossing

Why is Israel targeting Rafah?

Since they declared war in response to Hamas' deadly cross border-attack on October 7, Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu has said its central goal is to destroy its military capabilities.

Israel says Rafah is Hamas' last major stronghold in Gaza.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike near the separating wall between Egypt and Rafah Credit: AP

The IDF says it has so far dismantled 18 of Hamas' 24 battalions. But even in northern Gaza, the first target of Israel's offensive, Hamas has regrouped in some areas and continues to launch attacks.

Israel says Hamas has four battalions in Rafah, and that it must send in ground forces to topple them. They also said senior Hamas officials may be hiding there.

The IDF claimed it seized the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing after receiving intelligence it was “being used for terrorist purposes.”

The military did not provide evidence to immediately support the assertion, though it alleged the area around the crossing had been used to launch the mortar attack on Israeli soldiers at Kerem Shalom.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Rafah Credit: AP

Is this the beginning of a full-scale Rafah invasion?

The current military operation is limited in scope. In military briefings, the IDF describes it as a "precise counterterrorism" maneuver, in "specific areas" of Rafah.

But there are fears the operation's scale is increasing, with Israel having been threatening a ground invasion of Rafah for weeks.

Footage released by the Israeli military showed a tank entering the crossing

The international community has urged Israel not to go ahead with a major ground assault.

The UN Secretary-General warned that a full-scale invasion on Rafah by Israel would be "a strategic mistake, a political calamity, and a humanitarian nightmare".

On Tuesday, a senior Biden administration official said the US had paused a shipment of bombs to Israel last week over concerns Israel was approaching a decision on launching a full-scale assault on Rafah.

Israeli soldiers move on armored personnel carriers near the Israeli-Gaza border Credit: AP

In the UK, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrew Mitchell said an incursion into Rafah would struggle to be compliant with international law.

Critics say Netanyahu's promises to launch an operation despite international pressure are aimed at placating his political allies, even as an Israeli negotiating team in Egypt attempts to resurrect the possibility of a ceasefire.