For 23-year-old Reem Zidiah and her family, the crowded refugee camp at Tel al-Sultan near Rafah is the last stop on a terrible journey. But the sound of overnight airstrikes on Wednesday announced Israel’s plans that could turn the last refuge in southern Gaza into a death trap for displaced Palestinians.
Zidiah’s family was displaced multiple times since Israeli bombs destroyed their homes in Gaza City, moving south until reaching the closed border with Egypt. War is raging in Khan Yunis to the north, and Zidiah said Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets warning that Rafah would the next target for a ground invasion. Israeli airstrikes are now pounding Rafah. There is nowhere to go, and the entire area faces acute shortages of food, clean water and medicine.
“Every day they threaten us,” Zidiah told Truthout. “When the bombardment is in the areas you are staying in, there is no safe place.”
The United Nations estimates the population of Rafah has increased five-fold since Israel began its assault on Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attacks. The southern Rafah governate now hosts more than 1 million people — about half of Gaza’s population. But on Wednesday, Israeli leaders rejected a peace deal and were preparing to launch a ground invasion of Rafah. Top UN officials previously said the operation could lead to war crimes and must be avoided at all costs, with Secretary General António Guterres warning that an Israeli assault would “exponentially increase” the humanitarian “nightmare.”
Amid a looming ground invasion, Zidiah said her cousin is expecting her second child while sheltering with 40 family members in an apartment building near Rafah that was under construction before the war. Tens of thousands live in tents or sleep outside, and thousands more arrive from Khan Yunis each day. Medical facilities across Gaza are packed with the injured, sick and dying, and face chronic shortages of basics such as disinfectant and anesthesia. Other displaced Palestinian mothers are reportedly giving birth in tents and public bathrooms.
“It will be hard, [the doctor] told her — she’s not to expect anything and it will be the most difficult experience in her life,” Zidiah said. “We sleep on the ground, so what is a girl like her supposed to do? It will be terrible. I don’t know what will happen, but we are here to support her.”
With a chunk of President Joe Biden’s voter base revolting over his support for Israel as the death toll in Gaza exceeds 27,000 lives, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Jerusalem on Wednesday to share the Biden administration’s concerns about mass civilian casualties resulting from an invasion of Rafah.
The U.S also fears such an operation would push tens of thousands over the border into the Sanai Peninsula, causing Egypt to sever its already shaky relations with Israel, according to Axios. Moreover, the expulsion of Palestinians into Egypt would further cement Biden’s and the U.S.’s complicity in ethnic cleansing to observers around the world.
However, Gallant did not back away from Israel’s plans to invade Rafah in his conversation with Blinken, and soon after, Netanyahu rejected a counterproposal from Hamas. The group called for a temporary ceasefire that would allow the exchange of the remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza for Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisons. Hamas’s counterproposal also outlined pathways for the Israeli military to withdraw from Gaza and called for a permanent end to the war.
Blinken traveled to Jerusalem in an effort to secure at least a temporary ceasefire as Israel sets its sights on Rafah. A previous agreement freed dozens of Israeli hostages and provided Gaza a few days of reprieve in November, but on Wednesday, Netanyahu called the latest Hamas proposal “ludicrous” and said victory for Israel is within reach.
“There is no solution besides total victory,” Netanyahu said during a news conference in Jerusalem shortly after meeting with Blinken, who told reporters that negotiations would continue and a deal is still possible.
Zidiah and her family know Israel is coming, again. They see the news reports and hear the overnight bombing, but they refuse to be displaced again. Zidiah heard that a small number of people have fled through the Egyptian border at the cost of $5,000 per person, which the vast majority of displaced people cannot afford. It would cost tens of thousands of dollars for Zidiah’s family to flee, and with the only escape routes running through a war zone, they are sticking together in southern Gaza for now.
“We are not moving from here until we know where should we go, because I lost my house, there is no place, so I don’t care,” Zidiah said. “I am staying here until someone tells me where to go, because I am with my family and will not go anywhere like this.”
Zidiah said her people have cried so much that tears are running dry, but her family still doesn’t know what the future will bring. One day they may return home to Gaza, but their homes are destroyed.
“If I got back to Gaza City, I have no place to go, literally,” Zidiah said. “I lost my home, my aunt lost her home, most of my family members lost their homes… Gaza City is going to turn into camps; there is not a city anymore, it is a city of ghosts — literally.”
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