The Abu Mustafa family’s tent is hard against the high concrete and metal fence separating Gaza from Egypt in Rafah, the last relatively safe place in an enclave devastated by Israel’s military offensive, but one that may now also come under attack.
The family is among more than a million Palestinians now crammed into the area around Rafah and fearing they have nowhere left to flee inside a tiny strip largely reduced to rubble and where fighting still rages.
“Every day, we’re on the run. Being displaced is tough because I have two daughters with disabilities. I can’t carry them around. I don’t have a car or a cart,” said Laila Abu Mustafa.
“If there will be more displacement, I’m not moving,” she said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered an evacuation plan for the civilians who crowd Rafah, camping in streets and empty lots, on the beach and like the Abu Mustafa family on the sandy strip along the Egyptian border.
Before previous assaults on Gaza cities, Israel’s military has ordered civilians to leave without preparing any specific evacuation plan. Aid agencies say an assault on Rafah would be catastrophic in a war that has already caused untold misery.
US President Joe Biden was due to speak with Netanyahu, White House officials said, the first conversation between them since Biden last week described Israel’s military response in Gaza as “over the top”.
The war began on October first week when the fighter group Hamas that controls Gaza stormed the border fence with Israel.
Four months later, Gaza is in ruins. Under a massive daily bombardment, Israeli ground forces have overrun most of the enclave, smashing houses, public buildings and infrastructure with air raids, artillery fire and controlled detonations.
Palestinian health authorities say more than 28,000 people have been killed in the war. More than 85% of Gazans are homeless. A UN survey found that nearly one in 10 children under five are acutely malnourished.
Talks for a deal on a ceasefire and the release of hostages have so far failed to bring an agreement. Last week Israel rejected a Hamas proposal, saying it would not stop fighting while the group retained brigades that Israel says are hiding in Rafah.
Egyptian security sources said more high-level talks were planned for tomorrow with senior officials from Qatar and the US to attend, as well as Israeli and Palestinian delegations.
Israeli air raids have started targeting Rafah over recent days.
Yesterday, Hamas said Israeli air raids in the Gaza Strip over the previous four days had killed two hostages and injured eight others.
The group said any Israeli assault on Rafah would “blow up” the discussions for a deal to free the remaining hostages.
Speaking in an interview that aired on US network ABC yesterday, Netanyahu reiterated that Israeli forces would assault Rafah, but said they were preparing “a detailed plan” for where civilians there could go.
A spokesperson for France’s Foreign Ministry said “a large-scale Israeli offensive at Rafah would create a catastrophic humanitarian situation of a new and unjustifiable dimension”.
Palestinian health authorities say around 70% of people killed in Gaza are women or children under 18. The Israeli military said in a briefing in December that they thought roughly two civilians had been killed in Gaza for each dead Hamas combatant. The World Health Organisation has described the Palestinian Health Ministry system for reporting casualties as “very good” and UN agencies regularly cite its death toll figures.
Against the border fence, topped with barbed wire, the Abu Mustafa family hangs laundry between tents. They cook what little food they can gather in empty tin cans over a fire in the sand.
Fear of an assault on Rafah is the constant subject of every conversation in the crammed city, said Mariam, a woman who fled her home in Gaza City early in the war with her three children aged 5, 7 and 9.
“I can’t describe how we feel. There is turmoil in my head. My children keep asking me when Israel will invade Rafah and where we will go and if we will die. And I don’t have the answers,” she said.
Displaced members of Palestinian Abu Mustafa family, who fled their house due to Israeli strikes, prepare food as they shelter at the border with Egypt, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
People walk through the rubble of a building heavily damaged by Israeli bombardment, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, yesterday.