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Rafah was supposed to offer refuge. Now, the city waits for a possible Israeli attack

A displaced Palestinian woman hangs laundry to dry outside a tent at a makeshift camp on the Egyptian border, west of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 14.
Mahmud Hams
/
AFP via Getty Images
A displaced Palestinian woman hangs laundry to dry outside a tent at a makeshift camp on the Egyptian border, west of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 14.

TEL AVIV, Israel - Will Israel execute a major incursion into Rafah, on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, or will Hamas and Israel agree to a cease-fire instead?

As of Wednesday, roughly 1.4 million Palestinians sheltering in cramped conditions in Rafah were bracing for the potential of an Israeli assault on the city, but hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough as negotiators from the U.S., Israel, Egypt and Qatar were said to be meeting in Cairo for talks on a plan to pause the fighting.

In Rafah, which sits on the border with Egypt, families that barely had time to set up their tents are already packing up. Many have arrived in Rafah after fleeing Israeli military strikes in the northern swath of the Gaza Strip.

"When we came here, this whole area was empty, then maybe after three or four days, there was no room for even one person to come with his family," said Aisha Abdallah Al-Najjar.

She's from the village of Qizan an-Najjar in the Khan Younis governorate in southern Gaza, where Hamas and the Israeli military have been engaging in heavy fighting.

She points to the crowded camp around her and outlines the hourly struggle for survival.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment wait for their turn to bake bread at the makeshift tent camp in the Muwasi area in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Saturday, Dec. 23.
Fatima Shbair / AP
/
AP
Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment wait for their turn to bake bread at the makeshift tent camp in the Muwasi area in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Saturday, Dec. 23.

"The food, we run after it in line, we take turns for water and bathrooms," she said, adding that her surroundings are so crowded that people take turns even when going for a walk. "Everything is by turn. It's humiliating. It's crazy," said al-Najjar.

Khaled Atef Ashour is sheltering in Rafah with his family, but to him, it hardly feels like he's safe from anything, especially after the Israeli military staged an operation in the city on Monday to rescue two hostages. Health officials in Gaza said the Israeli raid resulted in the deaths of 74 people.

"There was intense bombing on Rafah ... 50 rockets fell in less than 20 minutes," said Ashour, who is also from Khan Younis, where the last remaining large hospital has been ordered evacuated by the Israeli military.

Thousands of civilians had sought refuge at the hospital, but were being told to leave against the backdrop of fierce combat. Israel has accused Hamas of using the hospital as cover for their operations — a claim denied by hospital officials and Hamas.

So going back home isn't an option for Ashour.

As Rafah braces for a potential Israeli assault, negotiators were reportedly meeting in Cairo Wednesday to continue discussions around a possible cease-fire. If successful, the talks could clear the way for a break in the fighting for up to six weeks, as well as allow for more humanitarian aid into Gaza. Talks could also lead to another exchange of Palestinian prisoners and Israeli hostages.

But in Rafah, cease-fire talks have not been top of mind for many residents. Instead, there has been a steady flow of headlines about strikes in Gaza and fighting between Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Israeli military in northern Israel.

In other words, more fighting. More death. More displacement.

"Every three, four, five years, war, war, war, war. We are exhausted, said Ashour.

"We are tired, officially."

"We want to return to our homes in Gaza"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week ordered the military to come up with an evacuation plan for Rafah in preparation for a ground offensive there.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than half of Gaza's total population is now crammed into Rafah, and military operations there "could lead to a slaughter in Gaza."

Netanyahu says Rafah is Hamas's last stronghold in Gaza, and that "Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there."

President Bidenhas warned Netanyahuagainst going into Rafah without a "credible and executable plan" to protect the lives of civilians who have paid a high price since Israel began its military offensive in Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants.

About 1,200 people were killed and 240 were taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7. In the months of fighting since then, at least 28, 576 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Palestinians flee from the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza after an Israeli ground and air offensive on Monday, Jan. 29.
Fatima Shbair / AP
/
AP
Palestinians flee from the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza after an Israeli ground and air offensive on Monday, Jan. 29.

Initially, the Israeli military asked the residents of Gaza City, in the north of the Gaza Strip, to evacuate south. But as the fighting has drawn on, that southern push has brought many Palestinians right up to the Rafah border with Egypt, which remains closed.

The question for many in Rafah now is: Is it worth it to move again if a temporary cease-fire could bring a moment of relief? If not, where to go?

Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General for UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency operating in Gaza, on Tuesday emphasized that "there is absolutely no safe place in Rafah anymore."

While it remains unclear if or when the Israeli military may move into Rafah, some Palestinians in the city are already packing up their tents and belongings in preparation for another forced evacuation, even as they remain uncertain as to where they could possibly go to be safe.

"We no longer feel safe in any area in Gaza," said Umm Naif al-Zaza, who has been displaced twice in the past few months, and said she's seen nothing but "suffering and humiliation" everywhere she's been.

"Every other day, we're raising a tent and setting up a tent, and then pack up," she added.

"If there's a truce, God willing, we want to return to our homes in Gaza."

The only cease-fire in this conflict was in November. Negotiated with the help of Qatar, it lasted a week and saw the release of 50 hostages from Gaza in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

It also allowed for some humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.

Like al-Zaza, Khaled Atef Ashour's also asks God for peace, but more specifically, he wants more engagement from Arab countries to bring about a ceasefire.

"I'm asking the Arab countries, the donor countries, and the countries that have a heart and a conscience and feel for the people of Palestine ... find me a solution. Find me a solution. That's it."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz is an editor at Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, she worked at several news organizations covering wildfires, riots, earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, elections, political upheaval and refugee crises in several countries.
Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]

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