Middle East Crisis: Israel Steps Up Attacks on Rafah as Hamas Shifts Position on Cease-fire


A sense of panic coursed through Rafah, in southern Gaza, on Monday after Israel issued an evacuation order for parts of the city, which has become home to more than a million Palestinians seeking refuge from seven months of war.

People dismantled their tents in the pouring rain. Prices for fuel and food skyrocketed. And some weighed the potential risk of staying against the dangers of travel through a war zone.

“If we have to leave, we will be entering the unknown,” said Nidal Kuhail, 29, a resident of Gaza City who has been sheltering in Rafah with his family. “Are we going to have a place to go? Are we going to be able to find a place to set up the tent?”

His tent is in a part of Rafah that is not covered by the evacuation order, but his family was still overcome with anxiety and divided over what to do next.

“Some are saying, ‘Let’s get out of here early,’ and others are saying, ‘Let’s wait a bit,’” said Mr. Kuhail, who worked as a manager at a Thai restaurant in Gaza City before the war.

Field workers for UNRWA, the U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees, estimated on Monday that around 200 people an hour were fleeing the evacuation zone through the main exit routes, said Sam Rose, the aid agency’s director of planning, who has spent the past two weeks in Gaza.

The atmosphere in Rafah was hopeful over the weekend, when reports of progress in cease-fire talks emerged, Mr. Rose said. But that optimism was transformed into ubiquitous fear and anxiety after Israel issued its evacuation order for the eastern parts of the city, indicating that it may move ahead with a planned ground invasion as it tries to dismantle Hamas in Gaza.

Many in Rafah said they knew they had to go, but did not know how to manage it.

Mousa Ramadan al-Bahabsa, 55, was sheltering with his 11 children inside a tent he erected at a U.N. school near al-Najma Square in Rafah. They have moved three times since the start of the war in October, he said.

After the evacuation order was issued, he said, people living at the school just looked at one another in shock. Then many began to pack up their things. But he did not have enough money to leave.

“All the people around me are evacuating,” said Mr. al-Bahabsa, who said the war had left him penniless. “I do not know where to go or who to ask for help.”

Leaving Rafah is expensive, Palestinians interviewed there said on Monday. Even though the Israeli military is telling people to move to an area that is less than 10 miles away, taking a taxi out of town would cost more than $260, and leaving on a smaller auto rickshaw would cost half that. A donkey-drawn cart would cost around $13, but even that is too expensive for many people.

The order also led to a spike in prices, Palestinians in Rafah said. The cost of fuel jumped to $12 a liter from $8, as did the cost of basic foodstuffs like sugar, which rose to $10 per kilogram from $3, they said.

“I do not even have 1 shekel,” Mr. al-Bahabsa said, referring to the currency used in Israel and Gaza. “I already lost my house, but I do not want to lose any of my children.”

Across town, Malak Barbakh, 38, was trying to gather her eight children as her husband packed their belongings. But her elder son had run off somewhere, she said, after telling them he did not want to leave Rafah after sheltering there for so long.

“What scares me most is the unknown,” Ms. Barbakh said. “I am so fed up with this nasty life.”

To make things easier, she said, the family planned to return to their house in the city of Khan Younis, even though they know it is gone.

“I hope we can build our tent over the rubble of our house,” she said.

The evacuation order came as a shock to Mahmoud Mohammed al-Burdeiny, 26. He said he thought Israel had been using the idea of a Rafah invasion only as a bluff to get a better deal from Hamas in cease-fire talks.

That meant he had made no plan to leave his house in southeastern Rafah. But now he felt the danger was real, and he had spent the morning watching neighbors flee.

“I saw the long road by the beach full of trucks, vans and cars,” said Mr. al-Burdeiny, who worked as a taxi driver before the war. He said the sight made him feel “infected with the disease of leaving, like the others.”

So Mr. al-Burdeiny and his wife began to pack their belongings and plan for the worst. They could take the doors of their house with them to use as shelter, they realized. And they could take apart their furniture to use as firewood, too.

Otherwise, Mr. al-Burdeiny feared, it would all end up looted or buried beneath the rubble of an airstrike.

“I do not want to see what happened to the people in Gaza City and in the north happen again in Rafah,” he said. “I am really so worried about my whole family.”



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