As Israel steps up attacks, 300,000 Palestinians are on the move

Palestinians prepare to evacuate, after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of Rafah, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2024. (REUTERS/Hatem Khaled)

JERUSALEM — Around 300,000 Palestinians in the southern and northern Gaza Strip are being forced to flee once again, the United Nations says, as Israel issued new and expanded evacuation orders Saturday. But many are unsure where to find secure shelter in a place devastated by war.

The expanded evacuation orders apply to the city of Rafah at Gaza’s southernmost tip, where more than 1 million Palestinians have gathered after fleeing Israeli bombardment elsewhere over the past seven months. They have deepened fears that the Israeli military is set to proceed with an invasion of Rafah, which Israeli leaders have long promised, a prospect that international aid groups and many countries have condemned.


Some 150,000 people have already fled Rafah over the past six days, according to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinians.

“It’s such a difficult situation. The number of people displaced 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 accountant who is sheltering with his family in a tent in Rafah. “Fear, confusion, oppression, anxiety is eating away at people.”

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, criticized the expanded evacuation order Saturday on social media, saying, “Evacuation orders for civilians trapped in Rafah to unsafe zones are unacceptable.”

Israel seized control of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Monday in what it called a “limited operation,” and stepped-up bombardment and fighting have continued in and around the city since then.

The Israeli military has said it is carrying out “precise operations in specific areas of eastern Rafah” targeting Hamas. But the majority of the more than 34,000 Palestinians reported killed in Gaza have been women and children, according to local health officials. Dozens have been killed by Israeli strikes in Rafah since Monday, health officials say. Most of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents have been forced to leave their homes, often multiple times throughout the war, with many now living in ramshackle tents, classrooms or overcrowded apartments.

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

“So far,” the military added, “approximately 300,000 Gazans have moved toward the humanitarian area in Al-Mawasi.”

Although Israel has characterized Al-Mawasi as a humanitarian zone, the U.N. has stressed that the area is neither safe nor equipped to receive the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already displaced by the war.

“Everywhere you look now in west #Rafah this morning, families are packing up,” Louise Wateridge, a spokesperson for UNRWA, wrote on social media Saturday. “Streets are significantly emptier.”

Even as Israeli forces bombarded Rafah, they have also in recent weeks repeatedly returned to areas of northern Gaza, including the town of Beit Hanoun and the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, to deal with renewed militant activity. On Saturday, the Israeli military ordered an evacuation of the northern city of Jabalia in advance of a planned operation.

Israel’s ground invasion began at the end of October in northern Gaza, in response to the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel. Large swaths of the area were left devastated by months of Israeli airstrikes and shelling, leaving a lawless wasteland dominated by street gangs. The Israeli military has said it killed many of Hamas’ key commanders in the area while driving out the group’s fighters.

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

Fatma Edaama, 36, a resident of Jabalia, said Saturday that she hoped the latest fighting would be limited enough to allow 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’s no safe place for us to go.”

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