The ministry said that 164 people have been killed and another 200 wounded across the Gaza Strip in the past 24 hours. That the overnight operation had focused on Rafah, a place that Israel’s army had until recently described as somewhere it would spare from attacks, shocked a bone-tired population that has spent months on the move, in what has often felt to them like a futile attempt to outrun the bombs.
In Rafah, they are now packed into houses and tents, and even sleeping on the streets — dependent on humanitarian aid to stave off famine, and disconnected from loved ones because cellular connections are patchy and there is no electricity to charge most cellphones.
“We are tired and cannot bear any more of this torture,” said Mirvat, 51, who is staying in a tent with her sister’s family in Rafah after being displaced from Gaza City. “All that I hope now is that the war ends.”
“I don’t know where to go,” she added, echoing a sentiment expressed across Gaza. “There is no place safe.” She asked that her last name not be used for reasons of security.
The conflict began on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants ambushed Israeli border communities from Gaza, killing around 1,200 people and taking 253 hostage. More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory military campaign, which has flattened much of the Gaza Strip while failing to bring back most of the captives, or to capture or kill senior leadership figures within Hamas.
U.N. chief António Guterres, noting that half of Gaza’s population is already crammed into the Rafah, said on social media that the looming Israeli campaign “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare.”
But Israeli officials now argue that they cannot complete their fight against Hamas militants without pursing the group into Rafah itself, a message that has alarmed even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strongest diplomatic backer, the United States, which provides much of the weaponry that would be used there.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke Sunday for the first time in more than three weeks, and a U.S. administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in line with White House rules, said that the American position on Rafah had been made “very clear.” The United States would not support such an operation unless Israel has a plan for civilian protection and sustenance “that was actually planned, prepared and implementable,” they said.
It was unclear if the U.S. president was aware that a major operation to rescue Israeli-Argentine hostages Fernando Simon Merman, 60, and Luis Har, 70, in Rafah would follow hours later. In a news briefing, IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said that the mission had been planned “for some time.”
It lasted only a few hours, but its impact lingered throughout Monday in the houses and tents where civilians reached by phone said that they had barely slept, and that once again, they faced impossible decisions about where to go, when nowhere felt safe.
In late October, Israel told 1 million Palestinians in the north to move south for their safety, though intensive bombardments continued across the enclave. Later, Israeli forces also advanced into Khan Younis, a southern area where they had initially told Gazans to flee. Israeli authorities have also designated a beachside village area called Mawasi, west of Khan Younis, as a “safer zone.”
Strikes have continued there, too.
A humanitarian worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, due to security concerns, said he was packing up again, but running out of options for where to go.
“I am preparing to head back to Khan Younis because Rafah is unstable at the moment,” said the worker who fled from Khan Younis after Israeli forces first raided it in early December.
The Beach Road — the last remaining route connecting southern, central and northern Gaza — remained open, he said, although for how long he did not know. In earlier forced evacuations, some of the IDF-designated routes led civilians right into the line of fire. Israeli forces also arrested an unknown number of people at checkpoints along evacuation routes.
The humanitarian worker said he feared that might happen again, and that for now, his family would be moving to the small one-bedroom house next to the sea that his father lived in. Some two dozen relatives were already living there, he said. His immediate family of five would have to join them.
“So many people are moving now,” he said. “We have no choice,” he added. “This is what we do to survive.”
Loveluck reported from London. Karen DeYoung in Washington, Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo, Hazem Balousha in Amman and Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.