Rafah Invasion: Everything That’s Happened so Far

by Tareq S. Hajjaj, published on Mondoweiss, May 8, 2024

It’s a scene that has played over and over again in the southern Gaza city of Rafah since the beginning of the war: mothers with sad and pale faces carrying their children on their shoulders and in their hands, balancing many bags on their backs, surrounded by more children carrying bags and belongings, and men and elderly people pulling carts and pieces of luggage. The remnants of their homes and possessions now follow them throughout their displacement. Even with no place to go, they took to the streets looking for a safe place in Rafah. The only safe place left.

Now those same scenes play out again in Rafah, this time, as people try to escape the one place they thought was safe. As people take to the streets frantically, Israeli airstrikes are nonstop, hitting several targets across the city of Rafah.

On May 6, Israel began its usual method of displacing civilians in Gaza; this time, in Rafah. Warplanes started dropping leaflets over people’s heads, ordering them to leave their homes and go to areas that the army says are safe. And once again, as people looked to the so-called safe zones, they saw people and homes being bombed and targeted.

The army began ordering a large part of Rafah, the entire eastern part of the city, telling people to leave their homes and move West. The leaflets weren’t the only warning. Bombs have been dropping in eastern Rafah as well, over the heads of their residents, intimidating people, and spreading fear in their hearts, forcing them to move.

Additionally, Muhammad Al-Najjar Hospital, located east of Rafah, was one of the areas ordered with evacuation by the army, with patients and medical personnel evacuated to field hospitals in other parts of Rafah.

Over the past few days, Palestinians have been evacuating the Eastern part of Rafah, which is home to at least 250,000 Palestinians, both locals and displaced people who had arrived in Rafah since the beginning of the war, upon orders from the army for people to seek shelter and safety in Rafah.

Despite causing the immediate re-displacement of around 250,000 people, among a city that is now home to an estimated 1.5 million, the Israeli army claims that its operations in Rafah are limited and small.

Within just a few hours of the start of the invasion, the Israeli army had also taken over the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, the only bridge between Gaza and the outside world –  one of the only outlets for humanitarian aid, for the evacuation of the wounded, and for some, the only way they have been able to escape the genocide.

At the time of publication, the army had been enforcing the complete closure of the Rafah crossing for three days in a row, with reports that once its “operations” are complete, Israel will hand the crossing over to a private American firm.

With leaflets flying, bombs dropping, new “safe zones” and “evacuation routes” being drawn up, and the closure of Gaza’s only connection to the outside world, millions of people in Rafah alone are now once again asking: where will we go?

People evacuate to nowhere

Saadi Salem, his two married daughters, their children, his wife, and his son are walking in Al-Awdah Street in Rafah, each carrying a small child, one of his grandchildren. They have bags and belongings – their entire lives and possessions inside. They go with everything they own, trying to reach the Al-Mawasi area in Western Rafah, without knowing if there will be room for them when they get there. Will they find a place for a tent and set it up again, or will they remain in the open, like hundreds of families who were in their homes and were forced to move out today?

Al-Mawasi, which has become an overcrowded tent city in southwestern Rafah since the start of the war, is swelling by the minute. With every new evacuation order, more families like the Salems, come seeking refuge in the area, even though there’s virtually no space left for families to set up a new tent.

Every place we go, the army will call us again, drop leaflets over our heads, and force us to leave. There is no longer any space to live in the Gaza Strip because of the Israeli army. All areas they say are safe today become fighting zones after a day or two. Thus, there is nowhere to go, and we do not know where to go now,” Salem told Mondoweiss.

Salem and his family are heading to a place they do not know. They have yet to make a clear plan, but he thinks that they should at least try the Al-Mawasi area. If he finds space, he and his son can bring what is necessary to set up a tent in that area.

I was displaced from Khan Younis the first time when the army warned the residents of the area, and if I had not been evacuated, my house would have been bombed over our heads,” he said. “I know that there is no safe place in the Gaza Strip, and I know that the army deceives us and orders us to go to one area, then storms it and orders us to go to another location, but we at least take one step towards protecting our families and go to the places indicated by the army,” he added.

I do not feel safe in any place in Gaza; the killing is in every corner around the Gaza Strip.”

Al-Mawasi tent city overflows

The Israeli army has ordered residents of eastern Gaza to evacuate to the Al-Mawasi area on the Mediterranean coast. It extends over 12 km in length and one kilometer in depth, stretching from the Deir al-Balah area in the center of the Gaza Strip, passing through the coastal strip of Khan Younis south and then the City of Rafah.

It is divided into two geographical regions. The first region belongs to the city of Khan Younis, and the second is in Rafah. The Al-Mawasi area is an open area, not residential. It lacks infrastructure, paved streets, sewage networks, water, electricity, communication, and even the internet.

Before the war, it was an area designated for agricultural or sand greenhouses. Before the war, it was inhabited by 9,000 people working in fishing and agriculture. Now, there are more than 400,000 displaced people in this area.

Since the beginning of the war, people in the Al-Mawasi area have been living in difficult humanitarian conditions as a result of the close proximity and crowding of that area with people and displaced people and the accumulation of waste in their places of residence.

The conditions that people suffer from in the Al-Mawasi area, the diseases that spread quickly, and the lack of any form of public health and safety prompt many people not to evacuate there. Amid the panic and fear among people and their running to areas they think are safe, some prefer to stay for their reasons, which they explain with pride.

Families make impossible decisions

Mahmoud Salim, 51, lives with his family and his married sons in his house in the Al-Salam neighborhood in Rafah, where they have lived their entire lives. It also happens to be one of the neighborhoods whose residents were ordered to move out by the army. But Salim and his family have decided to stay.

Salim’s family mainly consists of women and children, and after seeing the conditions of displaced people living in tents, he felt that it wasn’t something he would be able to put his family through. It is difficult for a family consisting primarily of women and children to live for an indefinite period of time in a tent, in an unhealthy environment full of diseases, and lacking the basic necessities of life. As Mahmoud says, it would be like moving from one death to another.

Leaving home for the first time means an endless journey of deportation from one place to another, in which there is no guarantee that we will one day return home,” he told Mondoweiss.

He knows though, that by staying in his home, surrounded by continuous bombing and the news that others who decided to stay have been killed, this could also mean the end for his family. But after witnessing the horrors of the past seven months, it’s a choice he is willing to make.

We could be targeted and killed anywhere in the Gaza Strip, whether in my home here or in the tent that the army orders us to go to, but I will stay in my home,” he said. “If we survive, I will be in my home, and if I do not survive, I will die defending my land and my home, and there is nothing more honorable for a person to die defending his country.”

He adds to the reasons that motivate him to stay, saying that he does not believe what the Israeli army claims during this war. To him, whether you evacuate or not, Israel will come after you.

Bombs as a ‘warning’

In the City of Rafah, humanitarian organizations led by the United Nations have long warned of the disastrous Israeli invasion of the city. Despite this, the Israeli army has proceeded to implement the first stages of the invasion of Rafah, which is inhabited by an estimated 1.5 million people, most of whom are displaced from across the Gaza Strip, and even internally within Rafah. The first stage of the invasion, in addition to the evacuation orders for the eastern part of the city, has also seen intensive bombing of those same areas.

The pictures that have come out from those areas are of buildings whose roofs have collapsed on top of each other, and dead children stuck under the rubble and between levels of crushed cement.

This week a tragic photo went viral on social media, showing two children who were crushed between two levels of a home that was bombed in Rafah. In the photo, it appears as if one of the children was extending his hand on his brother’s head, as if he was trying to protect him. But the ceiling fell on their bodies, and all that remained visible was the brother’s hand trying to help his brother.

These scenes struck fear throughout Rafah, with many aware that such is the point of these bombings: to create such horrific scenes that people are forced to flee, for fear they might suffer the same fate.

While the army claims and says that on the first day it targeted more than 50 Hamas and military targets in Rafah, the reality on the ground is that residents say the majority of these raids targeted the homes of civilians, like the two children in the photo.

Israeli army captures, shuts down Rafah crossing

Evacuation “warning” methods by the Israeli army have also included continuous random artillery shelling on areas that have been ordered to be evacuated, as well as “reconnaissance aircrafts” launching missiles at moving targets.

Though the incursion deep into the city has yet to begin, at the moment, the Israeli military has  reoccupied the Philadelphia Line, which is the border line between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, which spans 14 kilometers long. Tanks stormed the Philadelphia Line, as well as the Rafah crossing, and carried out extensive sabotage and shooting operations inside the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing.

Israeli soldiers published provocative scenes of them storming the Rafah crossing with tanks, running over a ferry with the name Gaza written on it, running over Palestinian flags, and raising the Israeli flag inside the squares of the Rafah crossing.

Since the Israeli army began its invasion of Rafah, the Rafah crossing has been completely closed, and the movement of passengers and the entry of humanitarian aid trucks entering the Gaza Strip has been stopped.

UNRWA spokeswoman in Gaza, Enas Hamdan, said “the Rafah crossing represents the main entry point for food, medicine, and fuel supplies. Its continued closure will hinder the humanitarian response of UNRWA crews working in the Gaza Strip, which help alleviate the difficult living conditions experienced by the majority of the population in the city of Rafah.”

There will be a gap in the entry of aid, which is the main source for the people; the biggest concern in the next few days is if the crossing is not reopened or other ways to enter aid are not found,” Enas says.

While reports spread about Israel’s intention to bring in a US security company to manage the crossing, Palestinian officials stated their rejection of this proposal without confirming its validity. The Palestinian side considers any force or presence at the border other than the Palestinians and Egyptians, as an occupying force.

The Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip said in a joint statement: “The factions will not accept from any party imposing any form of guardianship on the Rafah crossing and will consider this a form of occupation, and any plan of this kind will be dealt with as we deal with the Israeli occupation.”

*Featured Image:  Displaced Palestinians arrive to El-Zawaida in central Gaza after fleeing from the southern Gaza city of Rafah on May 8, 2024. The Israeli army ordered tens of thousands of people to evacuate Rafah as it conducts a ground operation in the southernmost city of the Gaza Strip. (Naaman Omar/apaimages)


Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union. He studied English Literature at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.  He has reported for Elbadi, Middle East Eye, and Al Monitor. Follow him on Twitter at @Tareqshajjaj.

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  1. Excerpt from One Democratic State of Palestine/FB,  by Amal Wahdan, Ramallah, Palestine: 

    For everyone who thinks or delusions that the American role is different from the Israeli’s towards the Gaza Strip, needs to rethink.

    The Israeli newspaper Hearts reported that the military operation to occupy Rafah will focus on ending control of Hams movement on the crossing and transferring responsibility for managing the Rafah crossing to a private American company after the end of the military operation, while elements of the security company are former soldiers in special units of the US Army. And the occupation authorities agreed with the US to limit the operation to the crossing!

    The Israeli-American occupation of the Rafah crossing south of Gaza is a step towards gradual control of the sector and then handing it over to a Palestinian autonomy or joint with an “Arab” party as a “friend”! For the American/Israeli!

    With the occupation of the crossing, the movement of passengers (especially of the injured) has stopped and aid has fully entered the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing and Hejzkarm Abu Salem!
    For everyone who thinks or delusions that the American role is different from the Israeli’s towards the Gaza Strip, needs to rethink.

    The Israeli newspaper Hearts reported that the military operation to occupy Rafah will focus on ending control of Hams movement on the crossing and transferring responsibility for managing the Rafah crossing to a private American company after the end of the military operation, while elements of the security company are former soldiers in special units of the US Army. And the occupation authorities agreed with the US to limit the operation to the crossing!

    The Israeli-American occupation of the Rafah crossing south of Gaza is a step towards gradual control of the sector and then handing it over to a Palestinian autonomy or joint with an “Arab” party as a “friend”! For the American/Israeli!

    With the occupation of the crossing, the movement of passengers (especially of the injured) has stopped and aid has fully entered the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing and Hejzkarm Abu Salem!

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