Thousands of Palestinians begin evacuating Rafah as army warns of incursion

Many Gazans are relocating for at least the second time since the start of the war as they pile their belongings on cars and donkey carts in driving rain

Palestinians leave the eastern side of the southern Gaza city of Rafah following IDF orders to evacuate ahead of a military operation, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, May 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)
Palestinians leave the eastern side of the southern Gaza city of Rafah following IDF orders to evacuate ahead of a military operation, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, May 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Thousands of Palestinians began moving out of the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Monday morning after receiving evacuation orders.

Lashed by the rain, Palestinians headed out of sodden tented camps or family homes in Rafah to seek refuge elsewhere in the Gaza Strip.

Some loaded children and possessions onto donkey carts, some packed into cars, others simply walked. The roof of at least one car was piled high with mattresses. Another had a wheelchair stowed in the trunk.

The question on people’s minds was where they could go. Many had already relocated at least once during the seven months since Israel responded to Hamas’s brutal attack on October 7 during which 1,200 Israelis were killed and 252 were taken hostage. It is believed 128 hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive.

Israeli officials have described Rafah as the last significant Hamas stronghold and the terror group has six remaining battalions in the Gaza Strip, four of them in Rafah. Rafah is also where it’s believed scores of hostages are being held and the Israeli military believes capturing the city is critical to defeat Hamas and release all the hostages.

“The [IDF] told people to go to Rafah and that it is a safe area. Today, they’re telling us to get out of Rafah. Where will the people go?” said one man, Abu Ahmed. He was speaking in a displaced persons camp where overnight rains had turned pathways into puddles and mud.

A displaced Palestinian man pushes a bicycle bearing his belongings in the rain in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following an evacuation order by the Israeli army on May 6, 2024 (Photo by AFP)

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani said some 100,000 people were being ordered to move to a nearby humanitarian zone called al-Mawasi, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. He said Israel was preparing a “limited scope operation,” and that it had published a map of the evacuation area. Orders were issued in Arabic through air-dropped leaflets, text messages and radio broadcasts. He added Israel has expanded humanitarian aid into Mawasi, including field hospitals, tents, food, and water.

“The IDF is about to operate with force against the terror organizations in the area you currently reside in,” the evacuation orders read. “Anyone in the area puts themselves and their family members in danger.”

Sahar Abu Nahel fled to Rafah with 20 members of her family.

“Where am I going to go? I have no money or anything. I am seriously tired as are [my] children,” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks. “Maybe it’s more honorable for us to die. We are being humiliated.”

Palestinians flee from the eastern side of the southern Gaza city of Rafah after the Israeli army orders them to evacuate ahead of a military operation, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, May 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

“So many people here are displaced and now they have to move again, but no one will stay here. It’s not safe,” Nidal Alzaanin told The Associated Press by phone.

“We have been awake since two in the morning because of the bombardment, and we woke up in the morning to find rain pouring, we drowned in the rain, our clothes, and items as well – we are out on the streets,” said Aminah Adwan. “We also woke up to much worse news, the call to evacuate Rafah,” she said.

She appealed to Arab countries to arrange for a permanent ceasefire to save Palestinian civilians.

Israel’s Rafah operation comes after Hamas appeared to reject the latest hostage release and truce deal proposal.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 34,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on Oct. 7.

Two hundred and sixty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border.

‘God our only support’

In the camp, women hung clothes and blankets to dry while children looked after their younger siblings and men dug trenches to channel the rainwater.

Maher al-Jamal said he had fled from Al Mughraqa, a town near Gaza City in the north of the enclave, to Nuseirat in central Gaza, then on to Rafah.

Displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip carry their belongings as they leave following an evacuation order by the Israeli army on May 6, 2024 (Photo by AFP)

“Now they threaten Rafah, they will commit massacres here in Rafah. We honestly don’t know where to go. God is our only support,” he said.

People were evacuating their homes as well as the displaced camps. The main Rafah crossing – Kerem Shalom – was closed following an attack on Sunday when Hamas launched at least 10 short-range rockets against an IDF staging ground near the crossing. Four soldiers were killed in the attack and another 10 were wounded.

A fleeing woman who was standing in a main street in Rafah said the Israeli military had called them by telephone all night telling them to evacuate.

“The people are all dead, what do they want from us? ” Rahmah Naser said, waving her arms in anguish. “Shame on them. These people have had enough, where should they go?”

Mohammad al-Najjar, a 23-year-old trainee lawyer who lives with his family in western Rafah, said people were gripped by fear and anxiety following the Israeli evacuation order.

“No area is safe,” he told Reuters by phone.

The few relatively safer areas that Palestinians could flee to were already packed with tents and thousands of people who had been displaced, he said.

“All that remains in Gaza is death,” he said. “I wish I could erase these last seven months from my memory.”

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