Palestinians scramble for safety ahead of expected Rafah operation

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Hatem Khaled

CAIRO\GAZA (Reuters) - As battles raged on the outskirts of Rafah on Wednesday with Israeli forces closing in, Palestinians were on the move again, abandoning neighbourhoods of the southern Gaza city and leaving them as ghost towns.

Israel has threatened a major assault on Rafah to defeat thousands of Hamas fighters it says are holed up there, but more than a million people are sheltering in the city, prompting warnings from the United Nations of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Israeli forces tasked with destroying the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, on Tuesday seized the main border crossing between Gaza and Egypt in Rafah, cutting off a vital route for aid into the enclave, where malnutrition is widespread.

Israel's military said it was conducting a limited operation in Rafah to kill fighters and dismantle infrastructure used by Hamas, which runs Gaza. It told civilians to go to an "expanded humanitarian zone" some 20 km (12 miles) away.

Three residents of Rafah told Reuters by telephone that tens of thousands of people have fled the city, which was seen as the last refuge for Palestinians who have been displaced many times over as Israeli air strikes pulverized Gaza.

People in the Jneina, Al-Shawka, Al-Salam and other neighbourhoods were ordered by the Israeli army to leave in anticipation of an assault. Some 1.4 million people have been sheltering in Rafah, raising the prospect of major casualties.

"Some streets look like a ghost town now," said Aref, 35, who asked not to be named, fearing Israeli reprisals.

"We don't fear death and martyrdom but we have kids to care for and live for another day when this war ends and we rebuild the city," he told Reuters via a chat app.

The war erupted on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants crossed into Israel from Gaza and killed 1,200 people and took more than 200 hostages back to the enclave, according to Israeli tallies.


Israel responded with air and artillery strikes which have killed nearly 35,000 people, Gaza health authorities say, and turned much of one of the most densely populated areas in the world into a wasteland of rubble.

Many Rafah residents said they received warnings over their phones, and planes dropped leaflets.

Juliette Touma, director of communications of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, estimated that around 10,000 Palestinians have left Rafah since Monday.

The Hamas-run Gaza government media office put the number of people fleeing at tens of thousands and warned against a "massacre"

Residents said tanks, which had moved in to take control of the crossing, had not entered built-up areas of the city and gun battles were still outside the city limits.

Suleiman Abu Kweik and his family are being displaced for the fourth time. "

"Our homes have been destroyed. In Gaza (City) our house… they destroyed it. It was shelled. We went to Khan Younis. When they threated Khan Younis, we went to Rafah," he said.

Hamas said its fighters were battling Israeli forces in the east of Rafah. Lines of smoke from air strikes and tank shelling rose from places east of the city, residents said.

"Some people are still staying in their homes, even in the red zone areas, but I daresay that tens of thousands have already left Rafah, including from areas west of the city, that are not included in the occupation army warning," said Mohammed Emad, 34, a father of three.

Abu Ahmed Al-Najar said more than 60 families who lived in tent camps in Al-Jneina neighborhood in Rafah had all left the area late on Tuesday.

"Sixty-five families or 400 people are now homeless. People have no money, no tents, no one to support them," he said.

Some people, like Mazen Ghadour, loaded their meagre belongings onto old trucks.

"This is the third or fourth time we have had to move. We are eight families. We live in fear. There is no safe place in the entire strip," he said.

"God knows where we will go. We are going to the unknown. We are going to the unknown."

(Writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Philippa Fletcher)