Panic has gripped Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city where more than a million Palestinians have taken refuge, after Israel walked back its commitment to keep the area safe and announced forces are preparing for a ground invasion there.

Despite condemnations from the U.S., the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue Israel’s fight until it had achieved a “total victory” and alleged that the militant group Hamas had a stronghold in Rafah. The U.N. humanitarian office said Tuesday that it had not received any Rafah evacuation plans from Israel and that the agency would not participate in any forced evacuation plans.

Thousands of people fled south in compliance with Israeli orders to evacuate northern Gaza. More than a million people, including 600,000 children, ended up sheltering in Rafah, a city of just 25 square miles along the border with Egypt.

Hundreds of civilians started to flee after Israeli strikes hit 14 houses and three mosques earlier this week, killing more than 100 people. That same morning, Israeli forces rescued two hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7 under the cover of the airstrikes.

“Everyone is feeling hopeless, not knowing what steps to take or where to seek refuge.”

– Lena, Mercy Corps staff member

Ghada Oudah, a journalist currently based in Rafah, told HuffPost that Israel’s overnight attacks incited panic throughout the city, with many thinking Israeli troops were on the way.

“It was the worst I’ve ever seen,” Oudah said. “We thought it would be the end.”

Yousef Hammash, an advocacy officer for the Norwegian Refugee Council who is sheltering in Rafah with his family, told HuffPost that they woke up around 1 a.m. to the sounds of bombs.

“I thought that the Israelis were invading Rafah,” he said.

Aid organizations warned that a ground invasion would be catastrophic, with the densely populated region already on the brink of a humanitarian collapse. Rafah was already facing a dire humanitarian crisis, as basic necessities like food and water are in short supply. Palestinian families, many who have been displaced several times, said they had nowhere else to go.

“A full-scale incursion of Rafah will be a bloodbath, and the world cannot let this go ahead,” said Marc Purcell, the chief executive officer of the Australian Council for International Development, a body of nonprofits in the country. “Forcing the over 1 million displaced civilians in Rafah to again evacuate with no safe place to go will have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.”

Despite speaking out against attacks on Rafah, the Biden administration shows no sign of moving to stop the invasion.

When asked if the president ever threatened to strip Israel of military aid, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday that the government was “going to continue to support Israel” and was “going to continue to make sure they have the tools and the capabilities to do that.”

Administration officials also said the next day that the White House had no plans to reprimand Israel if the country invaded Rafah. Critics have criticized the administration for not doing more to pressure the Israeli government to prevent further bloodshed in Gaza.

“It is time that the United States put teeth behind these warnings,” Refugees International, an advocacy organization, said in a statement Monday. “Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has repeatedly flouted these standards, despite more than four months of U.S. pleas to respect international law. President Biden’s latest warnings to Prime Minister Netanyahu will only matter if they come with consequences.”

Meanwhile, in Rafah, aid workers said the humanitarian situation is worsening every day.

“The sound of warplanes is constantly loud, making it feel like they are close to us. The military presence has become more apparent on the borders and on the outskirts of Rafah,” said Lena, a Mercy Corps staff member who is using a pseudonym for security reasons and ended up in Rafah after being displaced six times.

“Everyone is feeling hopeless, not knowing what steps to take or where to seek refuge,” she said.

source

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