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In Focus

A humanitarian disaster waits if Israeli troops push into Gaza’s Rafah: ‘Ceasefire is our only hope’

More than a million Palestinians have nowhere to turn if there is an assault on the border town that was supposed to be their last refuge. Bel Trew hears their call for a truce to come quickly

Tuesday 06 February 2024 19:28 GMT
Palestinians walk through the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli bombardment on Rafah
Palestinians walk through the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli bombardment on Rafah (AFP via Getty Images)

Families and medics in Rafah – the last refuge for Palestinians within Gaza – have warned of catastrophe if Israel fulfils its promise to advance into the border town.

Rafah, which lies along the border Egypt, is now sheltering more than a million people, most of them those who fled other parts of Gaza after Israel unleashed its heaviest ever bombardment of the strip in retaliation for the bloody 7 October attack by Hamas.

Many are sleeping in makeshift tents in schools, hospital courtyards, on the streets, and abandoned buildings, as families described cooking on campfires and washing in the sea.

“There is literally no where for us to go,” said Youssef* who lives in Rafah with his wife and child. He described hundreds of thousands of people, displaced from across destroyed Gaza, sleeping on the streets.

“The hospital we have is really small and underdeveloped to the extent that it struggle at normal times.

“The closet larger hospital is 30 minutes away in Khan Younis which is already being heavily bombed.”

The only hope for people like Youssef is a ceasefire deal, brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the US, which all three countries are furiously trying to push over the line. It is the focus of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s current trip to the region, the fifth since war erupted in October, where on Tuesday he reiterated an agreement “is possible and… essential”.

However, Israel has threatened to imminently turn the full ferocity of its army on Rafah, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying his country is “on the way to absolute victory” and “will not give it up”.

Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza (REUTERS)

This promises have terrified families in Rafah, some of whom have been displaced three times already on the orders of the Israeli military and they told The Independent they were bracing for the worst.

Queues for food are “unending”, one woman said, and one of the only hospitals in Rafah has just 65 beds, and no intensive care unit, a Palestinian doctor said.

Sarah, 25, a student said several family members were critically wounded by Israeli shelling in Khan Younis a few two weeks ago and have only just evacuated to Rafah, which was supposed to be their safe haven. They are now preparing to evacuate again - even though her uncle is in intensive care.

“Our only hope is a ceasefire, it is one thing we pray for everyday,” she told The Independent from a town just north of Rafah, which asked not to be named for security reasons.

Three times displaced herself, she said she only recently made her first attempt to leave the house in months to purchase supplies but an airstrike hit as she queued with hundreds of people for bread.

“It was terrifying. The bomb destroyed a mosque next to us. I have never seen so many queuing for bread. People are queuing all day and all the night for the read and food for their families,” she added sharing photos of the crowds of hundreds of people waiting for food.

She said she was terrified about what was next to come.

“We are surrounded. Our only hope can be an end to this.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, attends a joint press conference with Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani (via REUTERS)

The United Nations, has described Rafah as a "pressure cooker of despair”, and warned that if it comes under ground assault people would no where to escape to bar Egypt. Israeli officials have said they would coordinate with Egypt to move civilians north of Rafah, but families, already forced from their homes and shelters, say there is no where left to go.

Cairo has repeatedly said it will not admit any influx of Palestinian refugees in what it describes a bid to prevent any permanent dispossession.

The Egyptian authorities have also warned that any Israeli deployment along along its border would threaten the peace treaty the two countries signed over four decades ago. This piles even more pressure on the region which is already on the brink of a wider war, as Iran-backed militia in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have stepped up attacks on US forces in the region and global shipping routes in retaliation for Israel’s offensive.

Meanwhile Israel and Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah militant group trade fire across the border on a daily basis, and in recent weeks apparent Israeli strikes have killed senior Hezbollah commanders.

But Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has promised its tanks and troops would imminently press into Rafah, and continue until the military has “full reign” over the entire 42-km-long enclave.

Speaking to his forces on Monday, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again reiterated the country is “on the way to absolute victory” and “will not give it up”.

Israel unleashed its assault on Gaza after Hamas militants launched a bloody attack on south Israel on 7 October, killing over 1,200 people, and taking more than 240 people hostage, including toddlers.

Smoke billows during Israeli bombardment in Rafah (AFP via Getty Images)

Authorities in Gaza say that Israel’s offensive has killed than 27,400, seventy per cent of them women and children, with more than 100 dying in the last 24 hours alone.

The war has levelled vast swaths of the tiny enclave, displaced 85 percent of its population of 2.3 million Palestinians and pushed a quarter of residents to starvation.

Fearing the wider spread of the conflict, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has travelled to the region for his fifth visit since October, shuttling between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar in just 48 hours in a desperate bid to push through a ceasefire deal. Washington hopes the deal, which drafted by the US, Cairo and Qatar and could see a 40-day ceasefire and hostage deal, may temper regional tensions.

But Mr Blinken faces major challenges: Israel has dismissed the United States' calls for a path to a Palestinian state - which is a key point of any deal - while Iran's militant allies in the region have shown little sign of backing down.

There was a chink of light on Tuesday after Hamas issued a statement saying it had submitted its response to the latest ceasefire proposal, which Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said had been "positive”. But he declined to give further details.

Mr Blinken, at a press conference with the Qatari premier, said Washington was reviewing Hamas' reply and that he would discuss it with Israeli officials when he visits the country on Wednesday.

"There’s still a lot of work to do be done, but we continue to believe that an agreement is possible, and indeed essential," he added.

Palestinians mourn relatives killed in Israeli bombardment in Rafah (AP)

Officials close to the ceasefire negotiations told The Independent that while talks are ongoing, there are key sticking points holding it up.

Hamas is unwilling to agree to release hostages until they have assurances of a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

There has been "some movement" on a deal to secure the release of hostages by Hamas, US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday, adding that the response from Hamas was "a little over the top"

Israel does not want a deal that includes an indefinite ceasefire until it has completed its military objectives. It has also vowed to retain security control of the besieged strip, implying no imminent withdrawal.

But Israel is facing increasing international and domestic pressure to end the fighting and bring the hostages home - as families of those held captive in Gaza fear they will perish in the heavy fight.

More than 100 captives, mostly women and children, were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Israel said on Tuesday that at at least a fifth of the remaining 136 hostages still in Gaza were dead: the highest number of casualties they have admitted to so far.

Israel's chief military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on Tuesday that 31 of the remaining hostages held in Gaza were pronounced dead.

"We have informed 31 families that their captured loved ones are no longer among the living and that we have pronounced them dead," he told a regular media briefing.

Officials believe an an additional 20 who may have also died, according to a report from The New York Times.

Separate to the ceasefire negations Israeli military officials have said that the fighting could drag on for many more months especially after Hamas has begun to reemerge in some of the most devastated areas in the north after Israeli forces pulled back.

They continue to promise to push into Rafah.

In south Gaza, health ministry officials warn that Rafah does not have hospitals which can handle a ground assault.

“If they pushing to Rafah it would be catastrophic,” said Dr Yosef Abureesh, Gaza’s deputy health minister who is in beleagured city.

“The main hospital the Mohamed Youssef Najjar Hospital, is only really a primary health care centre which was converted into a hospital. There are only 65 beds, and two operation rooms. There is no ICU and there are no CT scanning machines.”

“The hope of all people in Gaza is a ceasefire right now.”

*Name changed to protect identity

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