As Israel intensifies attacks, 300,000 Gazans are on the move

Around 300,000 Palestinians in southern and northern Gaza are forced to flee once again. says the United Nations, while Israel issued new and expanded evacuation orders on Saturday. But many don't know where to find safe refuge in a war-torn place.

The expanded evacuation orders apply to the city of Rafah, at Gaza's southern tip, where more than a million Gazans have gathered after fleeing Israeli shelling elsewhere over the past seven months. They have compounded fears that the Israeli military is poised to proceed with an invasion of Rafah that Israeli leaders have long promised, a prospect that international aid groups and many countries have condemned.

Around 150,000 people have already fled Rafah in the last six days. according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency that helps the Palestinians.

“It's a really difficult situation: the number of displaced people is very high and none of them know where to go, but they leave and try to get as far away as possible,” said Mohammad al-Masri, a 31-year-old former accountant taking refuge with family in a tent in Rafah. “Fear, confusion, oppression and anxiety are eating away at people.”

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, criticized the expanded evacuation order on Saturday on social mediastating: “The evacuation orders for civilians trapped in Rafah to unsafe areas are unacceptable.”

Israel took control of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Monday in what it called a “limited operation”, and intensified shelling and fighting has continued in and around the city since then.

The Israeli army said it was carrying out “precise operations in specific areas of eastern Rafah” against Hamas. But according to local health officials, most of the more than 34,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza were women and children. Dozens of people have been killed by Israeli attacks in Rafah since Monday, health officials say.

Most of Gaza's 2.2 million residents have been forced from their homes, often multiple times during the war, and many now live in dilapidated tents, classrooms or overcrowded apartments.

On Saturday, the Israeli military said in a statement that it “called on the population of other areas in eastern Rafah to temporarily evacuate to the expanded humanitarian area of ​​Al-Mawasi,” a coastal area north of Rafah.

“So far,” the military added, “around 300,000 Gazans have moved to the humanitarian area of ​​Al-Mawasi.”

Although Israel has designated Al-Mawasi a humanitarian zone, the United Nations has stressed that the area is neither safe nor equipped to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already displaced by the war.

“Everywhere you look now, west #Rafa families are packing their bags this morning,” Louise Wateridge, a spokesperson for UNRWA, wrote on social media on Saturday. “The streets are significantly emptier.”

Even as Israeli forces have shelled Rafah, they have repeatedly returned to areas of northern Gaza, including the town of Beit Hanoun and the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, in recent weeks to deal with renewed militant activity. The Israeli army on Saturday ordered the evacuation of the northern town of Jabaliya ahead of a planned operation.

Israel's ground invasion began in late October in northern Gaza, in response to the October 7 Hamas-led attacks in southern Israel. Large swaths of the area have been devastated by months of Israeli airstrikes and shelling, leaving a lawless wasteland dominated by street gangs. The Israeli army said it killed several top Hamas commanders in the area as it chased away the group's fighters.

Four Israeli soldiers were killed in northern Gaza by an explosive device on Friday, the military said. In a statement on Saturday, it said Hamas was trying to “reassemble its infrastructure and terrorist operatives” around Jabaliya, which the Israeli army considers a Hamas stronghold and base of operations.

Fatma Edaama, 36, a Jabaliya resident, said Saturday that she hopes the latest fighting is limited enough for her family to stay. “Our lives already ended in 2006,” when Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections, leading Israel to begin tightening restrictions on Gaza, she said, adding: “There is no safe place to go.”

Israeli military analysts have called the apparent resurgence of Hamas in northern Gaza the result of Israel's failure to establish an alternative form of government there, leaving behind a void that provides an ideal breeding ground for an insurgency. Even as Israeli forces sweep the areas, when they inevitably retreat Hamas reasserts its control, either directly or through allies, said Michael Milshtein, a former senior Israeli intelligence official.

“Hamas still rules,” Milshtein said. “Their forces have been severely damaged, but they still have capabilities. There is still no alternative in Gaza, and every alternative we have tried to establish has failed.”

Earlier in the week, Razan al-Sa'eedi, an 18-year-old university student studying accounting, prepared with her family to leave the UNRWA school in Rafah where they had been living for months. But as they waited for the driver they had booked to take them to another city, they learned that her vehicle–a tractor pulling a large wagon–had been hit by an Israeli missile, Ms. al-Sa'eedi said . A man was killed, she said.

Panicked, they called local emergency workers, who told them no help was available. Instead, Ms. al-Sa'eedi said, the family members left most of their belongings and set off on foot, each carrying only a backpack.

As they waited outside the school entrance for Ms al-Sa'eedi's father and brother, they saw them running with blood streaked across their faces.

“We saw a drone shooting around them,” he said. “We kept our backpacks and ran away from that whole dangerous area.”

As they fled, Ms. al-Sa'eedi said, they occasionally stopped to try to hail passing taxis, but again and again they found them full.

After a nearly two-day journey that involved hours of walking and then – finally – a taxi ride, he said, they arrived at Al Aqsa University in the southern city of Khan Younis. Inside one university building, classroom walls were scrawled with messages.

One message said: “This floor is booked,” he said, while another said: “Please don't get any rooms or we will kick you out.”

Only a small storage room, once used to store generators, was empty. This should be enough.

“We only have three blankets to use as tents,” Ms. al-Sa'eedi said. “We have no alternative to this small room.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel.

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