Abood Okal woke up Monday morning to messages that took him back to the start of the devastating Israel-Hamas war ― specifically to Oct. 13, when Israeli jets dropped flyers in northern Gaza telling its more than 1 million residents to flee and he and his family scrambled to leave their homes on short notice.

Okal, his wife and their infant son moved hours away to a house east of Rafah, the town in southern Gaza that has become a refuge for most of the region’s displaced people. They eventually left the Gaza Strip to return to Massachusetts, thanks to their U.S. passports. But Okal’s brother and sister, as well her husband and young children, are stuck at the house where he stayed, and earlier Monday they told him they received new flyers, stating Israel’s demand for Palestinians to flee Rafah, which Israel’s government has threatened for months to invade despite warnings that it would cause a bloodbath.

Okal described familiar “chaos” as he has tried from afar to help his loved ones find safety.

“They packed up what they could, and the men went out to look for a spot” to pitch tents, he told HuffPost. “There’s zero spots.… They may spend the night where they are because there is no place to go.”

Meanwhile, his sister Eman reported “increased bombardment” in the area, including shelling by tanks that sounded like they were targeting her civilian neighborhood. Some of those sheltering with her took what they could carry and just began walking west, Okal said, which reminded her of Palestinians fleeing their historic homes with no plan for their future amid the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

“Everyone is getting up and leaving because now it’s been a few times of this” throughout the war, he said. “Everyone knows in 48-72 hours, things will turn very grim ― if you haven’t left, that’s a blanket excuse for the Israeli army to say, ‘You can’t blame us for carpet-bombing.’”

Israel put a humanitarian spin on its Monday move to expand its U.S.-backed ground invasion of Gaza to Rafah, which it casts as a military necessity to pursue the Palestinian militant group Hamas in retaliation for its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people. It said its directive to move affected only about 100,000 people in a limited section of Rafah and that it had designated zones where they would be shielded.

But observers familiar with conditions on the ground say the approach, which President Joe Biden has expressed concern about but has not yet taken tangible steps to alter, ignores the unique risk of a battle for Rafah that would subject already desperate civilians to inconceivable danger.

In particular, Israel highlighted two areas as safe zones, Al-Mawasi on Gaza’s southern coast and sections of Khan Yunis in the center of the strip, neither of which residents nor aid groups believe can safely or humanely accommodate the huge flow of people who are already on their way out of Rafah.

“It’s not about finding a safe location: Everybody knows the whole ‘safe zones’ [idea] is BS,” Okal said. His family members could not find a free spot, even in Al-Mawasi, in their Monday hunt, he added, criticizing unfulfilled Israeli promises of temporary accommodations for Palestinians.

“Even before today’s evacuation orders, Al-Mawasi was uninhabitable. Our team members report tents stretched endlessly under scorching sun with no relief in sight and no electricity, water or aid,” Tjada D’Oyen McKenna, CEO of the charity Mercy Corps, said in a Monday statement. She added that a recent heatwave there had killed a 5-year-old girl and that insect-borne disease is widespread in the area.

Meanwhile, Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council aid group, issued a bleak prediction about the effect of the growing fighting in Rafah, which as of Monday evening U.S. time involved heavy airstrikes and the targeting of a crossing point between Gaza and Egypt that is vital for humanitarian staff and supplies.

The aid system is bound to collapse, leaving those fleeing the advancing Israeli forces vulnerable to hunger and suffering,” Egeland said. Palestinian authorities estimate the Israeli campaign has killed 35,000 Palestinians already.

‘No Confidence’

Israel’s apparent plan for defeating Hamas in Rafah while abiding by humanitarian norms involves several steps. Each is complex and could easily go wrong, condemning civilians to death.

Every person in Rafah has likely already lacked sufficient food for months, with somewhere between a quarter and a half of the people suffering famine-level hunger, according to the world’s top food security tracker. Starvation makes people weaker, as do injuries from months of Israeli bombings in various parts of Rafah and the stress of displacement and life in a war zone.

Those complications are even more challenging for the group that comprises nearly half of Rafah’s population: 600,000 children.

“If you think about seven months of war and the impact on children, the nature of this evacuation is different because children are exhausted, traumatized and in many cases sick and injured,” said Tess Ingram of the United Nations agency for children (UNICEF). Her organization says 65,000 of those children have a pre-existing disability, while 78,000 (and counting, as births continue in Gaza at a rate of 183 per day) are less than 2 years old.

When Ingram visited Gaza last month, doctors there told her a growing number of babies were being born malnourished, unwell or generally weak, reflecting their mothers’ state. That means more babies than ever need to be in incubators, creating “an enormous challenge” to moving them, she said.

A Palestinian baby injured after an Israeli attack is being taken Monday to a hospital for treatment in Rafah, Gaza.
A Palestinian baby injured after an Israeli attack is being taken Monday to a hospital for treatment in Rafah, Gaza.

Doaa Albaz/Anadolu via Getty Images

“It’s the babies in incubators who are left when the power goes out, when the medical staff are no longer able to support them,” Ingram said. She noted that Rafah is home to a major maternity hospital and that international humanitarian law maintains protections for civilians who choose not to leave an area despite military orders to do so.

However difficult, moving likely seems unavoidable for many Palestinians, even outside the area to which the Israelis have already sent flyers. Sam Rose of the U.N. agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) told Sky News he anticipates “far more” than the 100,000 in the currently specified zone will flee; he witnessed people packing up their tents in western Rafah earlier on Monday.

The hard-to-estimate outpouring of civilians is nearly certain to create a crunch along the remaining intact routes for travel within Gaza and intense competition for even a few feet of space in the cramped “safe zones.”

The journey is not easy. Okal described just one hardship: As people move farther west, away from the Israeli border, they may lose limited cellular signals through e-SIMs connected to Israeli mobile networks and enter areas with intermittent chances to charge their phones, thus losing the ability to keep in touch with family members.

And those who travel farther toward Khan Yunis will be at significant risk of injury from unexploded Israeli bombs and mines, U.N. experts say.

Once they make the trip out, civilians must contend with a pair of additional problems, one long-standing, the other new.

First is the risk that Israel will choose to strike even its designated humanitarian areas, as it has repeatedly done in Rafah and Al-Mawasi. “Past ‘evacuation’ orders have resulted in serious civilian harm,” wrote Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Biden administration official who runs the charity Refugees International, in a post on X (formerly Twitter). “So seeing the same map of ‘safe’ areas from the [Israel Defense Forces, or IDF], and the same calls for people to move to the oft-bombed Mawasi coastal zone, inspires no confidence that the IDF will take civilian safety any more seriously than it has so far.”

The second is the unpredictability of humanitarian assistance.

Rafah was a functioning town before the Israel-Hamas war began. Once fighting was underway, aid workers built their new operations to help Palestinians with features including a water system, and existing markets and medical facilities. In contrast, “there’s almost nothing in Al-Mawasi,” which is largely a sand dune, Ingram said. And Israeli attacks have destroyed much of the infrastructure in Khan Yunis and nearby Deir Al Balah, where some Rafah families have already headed.

As order collapses in Rafah and large numbers of civilians move to more remote areas farther from the entry points for most aid to Gaza, at southern crossings with Egypt and Israel, it will be significantly harder to get civilians help, Ingram told HuffPost.

Major fighting in Rafah means “not only would our ability to bring new supplies into Gaza be impeded, so would our ability to store or access supplies that are already in Gaza,” she said. Most aid warehouses and accommodations for workers are in the town. Additionally, Ingram noted, “the further people are from the aid access points, the harder it has been for humanitarian agencies to reach them, because of damage to roads and infrastructure but also the dangers of traversing the Gaza Strip.”

As Okal fears for his family and hopes that faltering cease-fire talks will bear fruit, he can’t stop thinking about how what he is witnessing seems like “the same story that happened in the north” of Gaza ― the outcome the Biden administration has repeatedly pledged it would not allow.

After months of war, he would have expected “lessons learned” by Israel “to save face.”

“The negligence and the arrogance and the lack of accountability are manifesting themselves into the last neighborhood of the Gaza Strip ― it’s quite shocking,” Okal said.


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