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From joy to terror: Gazans crammed into Rafah brace for Israeli assault

It was hours since thousands of Palestinians had poured on to the streets of the Gazan city of Rafah, weeping and hugging as they began to believe Hamas’s acceptance of a ceasefire deal had spared them an Israeli ground offensive.

But by Tuesday morning many sheltering in Rafah were on the move again, carrying sacks and mattresses out of the city in cars and donkey carts after Israel pummelled them with a second night of air raids and signalled it would not accept the agreement Hamas had approved.

The abrupt change of mood was just the latest traumatic twist for a war-weary population of more than 1mn people crammed into the southern city after Israel’s offensive in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack reduced much of the rest of the besieged Gaza Strip to rubble.

News on Tuesday morning that an Israeli tank brigade had seized control of the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt, a key entry point for food and other humanitarian supplies, brought further alarm.

“We had barely celebrated news that Hamas accepted a ceasefire deal, when we heard that Israeli tanks had rolled in,” said Mohamed Karraz, 28, a displaced man from Gaza City in the north of the strip.

“Last night was very violent, with non-stop bombardment and the boom of explosions and ambulance sirens.”

Palestinians flee Rafah on Tuesday © AFP/Getty Images
A Palestinian shows a leaflet dropped by Israeli aircraft warning them to leave the city ahead of military operations © Ahmed Salem/Bloomberg

Israel bombarded eastern parts of Rafah on Monday morning, sparking panic, but hours later Hamas announced it accepted a hostage deal mediated by Egypt and Qatar that would have led to an initial six-week pause in fighting. Israeli leaders, however, soon said the text approved by the Palestinian group differed from the one they had previously accepted, and carried out a further night of air strikes.

On Tuesday morning Israeli planes dropped leaflets telling residents of five eastern districts to move to a coastal area west of Rafah because the Israeli military will “operate with great power against terror groups in your areas”.

Om Udai Tabash, 44, said her family would head back to their home in Khan Younis, in an apartment block that has lost its roof to Israeli bombings.

“At least we will die in our place,” she said. “The basics of life do not exist in Khan Younis because the infrastructure has been destroyed, but the Israeli army will do the same here in Rafah. If we have to die, let it be in our homes.”

Many people now in Rafah have been displaced multiple times from northern parts of the strip. Some 1.4mn people, more than half of Gaza’s population, have been packed into a place normally home to just 280,000: they have crowded into schools, private homes and tents, with little access to sanitation or clean water.

Many have spent months in tents, exposed to rain over the winter and more recently to the rising heat. Limited garbage collection had enabled disease and insects to spread, aid agencies said.

Nour Ali, 35, a mother of four displaced from Gaza City, said she and her family slept on the street on Monday night after leaving a home in which they had been sheltering in the eastern Rafah district of Geneina, which was targeted by air strikes on Monday morning.

“We wanted to go back to the house after hearing of the ceasefire in the evening, but the bombardment resumed and just went on non-stop. No one slept,” she said.

Smoke rises after Israeli strikes in Rafah © Hatam Khaled/Reuters
A Palestinian youth surveys a destroyed building in the southern city © AFP/Getty Images

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency Ocha, said the seizure of the Rafah entry point — especially after Israel closed its own Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza — threatened the entire humanitarian operation in the enclave.

Kerem Shalom was closed following a weekend Hamas mortar attack that killed four Israeli soldiers, though Israel has said it will reopen “once security conditions allow”. Other aid routes into central and north Gaza remain open, though only limited numbers of convoys have entered by those routes; a long-planned US-built floating pier off Gaza may begin operations this week. 

“The two main arteries for getting aid into Gaza are currently choked off,” Laerke told reporters in Geneva. He said UN agencies had low stocks of aid within Gaza and that “if no fuel comes in for a prolonged period of time it would be a very effective way of putting the humanitarian operation in its grave”.

The Israeli military “is ignoring all warnings about what this could mean for civilians”, added Laerke. Aid workers in Gaza report that “panic and despair has taken hold”, he said. “People are terrified.”

Egypt has also condemned the seizure of the Rafah crossing, which it said “threatened a lifeline for more than a million Palestinians” and the route by which some sick and wounded people can leave for treatment.

Israel has long threatened a full-scale offensive in Rafah, where it believes remaining leaders of Hamas including Yahya Sinwar, who masterminded the October 7 attack, are hiding, probably in the network of tunnels maintained by the militant group. The October 7 assault killed 1,200 Israelis, according to Israeli authorities.

But the US and other allies of Israel, along with aid agencies, have warned against such a move given the humanitarian cost. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s offensive, Palestinian health authorities have said. The UN World Food Programme said this week that northern Gaza was experiencing “full-blown famine”, though it has not yet made a formal declaration of famine.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell on Tuesday said he was “afraid that this [offensive] is going to cause a lot of civilian casualties. Whatever they say, there are 600,000 children in Gaza. They will be pushed towards the so-called ‘safe zones’. There are no ‘safe zones’ in Gaza.”

An Israeli military official said the seizure of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing was part of a “precise and limited operation . . . within specific areas of eastern Rafah”.

But in the city, Mazen al-Sheikh Youssef, 27, said news that the army had taken control of the crossing was “terrifying”. “We are now in a prison and even aid will not be coming in,” he added. “They will starve us and kill us like they did in the north.”

Additional reporting by Neri Zilber in Tel Aviv and Daria Mosolova in Brussels

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