Israeli assault on Rafah: Gaza’s people have no place to run

Editorial – The Guardian

It is hard to believe that life could get worse for Palestinians there – but there is every sign that it will

The last refuge is no longer a refuge. Around half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have found some kind of shelter in Rafah, often under canvas, raising the border city’s population fivefold. Now, though desperate, traumatised and exhausted, many are readying to flee again.

Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israeli troops will soon enter, despite warnings from António Guterres, the UN secretary general, that it would “increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences”. Strikes on the city appeared to be intensifying on Thursday.

The UN has warned that a ground offensive could lead to war crimes. It is hard to see how devastating civilian casualties would not result, given what has happened in less crowded areas. Israel said in late January that it had killed only about 30% of Hamas fighters – around 10,000, including 1,000 killed in the group’s murderous attack on 7 October, which claimed 1,200 mostly Israeli lives. The total death toll stands at 27,000 people, more than 11,000 of them children. Another 66,000 have been injured. A quarter of the population is starving.

Israel has reportedly told Egypt that it will allow people to leave Rafah before it moves in. But not everyone is capable of fleeing again, and there is nowhere safe to go. Some of those who have tried to leave the city in recent days have not been heard of since making the attempt. Fierce fighting continues in the Gazan city of Khan Younis. Overall, more than half of Gaza is still under evacuation orders, and Israel has said that fighting will continue in the north, where it had previously said operations were completed, due to the reappearance of Hamas combatants and officials.

Where fighting has ceased, a wasteland is left. Homes, schools, bakeries, hospitals, mosques, churches, sewage infrastructure, aid centres – all erased from the earth. In the words of one witness: “It’s like after an atomic bomb.” The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has also complained that it has not been able to deliver aid to the north for more than a fortnight. A major ground offensive in Rafah threatens to cut off Gaza’s lifeline completely, since aid comes via the city’s crossing with Egypt.

Meanwhile, each day of war increases the need for those deliveries. The US has, belatedly, invested heavily in attempts to pursue a ceasefire and the release of hostages. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said the Hamas counteroffer to proposals from the US and Israel contained clear non-starters, but offered “space to pursue negotiations”. However, Mr Netanyahu’s response made it clear that American shuttle diplomacy is of limited use while Washington’s pressure essentially amounts to urging and imploring. He insisted that “absolute victory” is needed, and that there will be months more fighting. Nor is the prime minister willing to listen to freed hostages, and relatives of those still held, as they plead for a deal. The extreme right, upon whom he depends for political survival, would not tolerate such an agreement.

Mr Netanyahu is far from being the only obstacle on the Israeli side to a ceasefire and the release of hostages. But there can be little if any progress while he remains at the helm. He is too busy pursuing his personal interests to serve his country’s. That means, frighteningly, that the least grim scenario for Rafah now looks like further mass displacement and a deepening humanitarian disaster.