As Israel Steps Up Attacks, 300,000 Gazans Are on the Move

Around 300,000 Palestinians in southern and northern Gaza are being forced to flee once again, the United Nations says, as Israel issued new and expanded evacuation orders on Saturday. But many are unsure where to find secure shelter in a place devastated by war.

The expanded evacuation orders apply to the city of Rafah at Gaza’s southernmost tip, where more than a million Gazans have gathered after fleeing Israeli bombardment elsewhere over the past seven months. They have deepened fears that the Israeli military is set to proceed with an invasion of Rafah, which Israeli leaders have long promised, a prospect that international aid groups and many countries have condemned.

Some 150,000 people have already fled Rafah over the past six days, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency that aids Palestinians.

“It’s such a difficult situation — the number of people displaced is very high, and none of them know where to go, but they leave and try to get as far away as possible,” said Mohammad al-Masri, a 31-year-old accountant who is sheltering with his family in a tent in Rafah. “Fear, confusion, oppression, anxiety is eating away at people.”

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, criticized the expanded evacuation order on Saturday on social media, saying, “Evacuation orders for civilians trapped in Rafah to unsafe zones are unacceptable.”

Israel seized control of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Monday in what it called a “limited operation,” and stepped-up bombardment and fighting have continued in and around the city since then.

The Israeli military has said it is carrying out “precise operations in specific areas of eastern Rafah” targeting Hamas. But the majority of the more than 34,000 Palestinians reported killed in Gaza have been women and children, according to local health officials. Dozens have been killed by Israeli strikes in Rafah since Monday, health officials say.

Most of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents have been forced to leave their homes, often multiple times throughout the war, with many now living in ramshackle tents, classrooms or overcrowded apartments.

On Saturday, the Israeli military said in a statement that it “called on the population from additional areas in eastern Rafah to temporarily evacuate to the expanded humanitarian area in Al-Mawasi,” a coastal area north of Rafah.

“So far,” the military added, “approximately 300,000 Gazans have moved toward the humanitarian area in Al-Mawasi.”

Although Israel has characterized Al-Mawasi as a humanitarian zone, the United Nations has stressed that the area is neither safe nor equipped to receive the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already displaced by the war.

“Everywhere you look now in west #Rafah this morning, families are packing up,” Louise Wateridge, a spokeswoman for UNRWA, wrote on social media on Saturday. “Streets are significantly emptier.”

Even as Israeli forces bombarded Rafah, they have also in recent weeks repeatedly returned to areas of northern Gaza, including the town of Beit Hanoun and the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, to deal with renewed militant activity. On Saturday the Israeli military ordered an evacuation of the northern city of Jabaliya in advance of a planned operation.

Israel’s ground invasion began at the end of October in northern Gaza, in response to the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel. Large swaths of the area were left devastated by months of Israeli airstrikes and shelling, leaving a lawless wasteland dominated by street gangs. The Israeli military has said it killed many of Hamas’s key commanders in the area while driving out the group’s fighters.

Four Israeli soldiers were killed on Friday in northern Gaza by an explosive device, the military said. On Saturday, it said in a statement that Hamas was trying “to reassemble its terrorist infrastructure and operatives” around Jabaliya, which the Israeli military considers a Hamas stronghold and base for operations.

Fatma Edaama, 36, a resident of Jabaliya, said Saturday that she hoped the latest fighting would be limited enough to allow her family to stay. “Our lives already ended in 2006,” when Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections, leading Israel to begin tightening restrictions on Gaza, she said, adding, “There’s no safe place for us to go.”

Israeli military analysts called Hamas’s apparent resurgence in northern Gaza the result of Israel’s failure to establish any alternative form of government there, leaving behind a vacuum that is an ideal breeding ground for an insurgency. Even though Israeli forces sweep through areas, when they inevitably retreat Hamas reasserts its control, whether directly or through allies, said Michael Milshtein, a former senior Israeli intelligence official.

“Hamas still rules,” Mr. Milshtein said. “Their forces have been badly damaged, but they still have capabilities. There’s still no alternative to them in Gaza, and every alternative we tried to establish failed.”

Earlier in the week, Razan al-Sa’eedi, an 18-year-old university student studying accounting, prepared with her family to leave the UNRWA school in Rafah where they had been living for months. But as they waited for the driver they had arranged to transport them to another city, they learned that his vehicle — a tractor pulling a large cart — had been struck by an Israeli missile, Ms. al-Sa’eedi said. One man was killed, she said.

In a panic, they called local emergency responders, who told them that no help was available. Instead, Ms. al-Sa’eedi said, the family members left behind most of their belongings and set out on foot, with each person carrying only a backpack.

As they waited outside the school entrance for Ms. al-Sa’eedi’s father and brother, they saw them running with blood streaked on their faces.

“We saw a drone firing around them,” she said. “We held our backpacks and ran away from that whole dangerous area.”

As they fled, Ms. al-Sa’eedi said, they occasionally stopped to try to flag down passing taxis, but again and again found them full.

After a nearly two-day trek that involved hours of walking and then — finally — a taxi ride, she said, they arrived at Al Aqsa University, in the southern city of Khan Younis. Inside a building at the university the walls of classrooms were scrawled with messages.

One message said, “This floor is booked,” she said, while another read, “Please do not take any room, otherwise we will kick you out.”

Only a small closet once used to store generators was empty. That would have to do.

“We only have three blankets to use as curtains,” Ms. al-Sa’eedi said. “We don’t have any alternative to this small room.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel.

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