UN decries order by Israeli PM to evacuate Rafah, where displaced Gazans are sheltering
Palestinian civilians in Rafah in the Gaza Strip need to be protected, but there should not be any forced mass displacement, the United Nations said on Friday after Israel began drawing up an evacuation plan to allow it to defeat Hamas in the area.
“We’re extremely worried about the fate of civilians in Rafah,” UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said on Friday.
“What is clear is that people need to be protected, but we also do not want to see any forced displacement — forced mass displacement — of people, which is by definition against their will,” he said.
“We would not support in any way forced displacement, which goes against international law.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the country’s military on Friday to draw up a dual plan to evacuate Palestinian civilians from Rafah in southern Gaza and to defeat the last Hamas fighters there.
“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war without eliminating Hamas and by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah. On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
No further details were given in the statement, issued two days after Netanyahu rejected a Hamas ceasefire proposal that also envisaged the release of hostages held by the Palestinian militant group.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are sheltering in Rafah, many of them penned up against the border fence with Egypt and living in makeshift tents.
Aid groups said there would be a high Palestinian death toll if Israeli forces stormed Rafah, and they warned of the growing humanitarian crisis in the city. Doctors and aid workers in Rafah are struggling to supply even basic aid and stop the spread of disease.
“The unprecedented density of Rafah’s population makes it nearly impossible to protect civilians in the event of ground attacks,” the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Friday.
“The congestion in Rafah has reached a point where normal routes are blocked by tents set up by families seeking any flat, clean space available.”
The Palestinian Presidency said what it described as Netanyahu’s plans for a military escalation in Rafah aimed to displace the Palestinian people from their land.
“Taking this step threatens security and peace in the region and the world. It crosses all red lines,” said the office of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority that exerts partial self-rule in the Israeli occupied West Bank.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said on social media on Friday that Ottawa was “deeply concerned” by the reports of a Rafah evacuation order, adding that such a move would have a “devastating impact” on those seeking refuge there, including Canadian nationals, and make “the vital delivery of humanitarian aid dangerous.”
“We continue our call for the protection of civilians, for the release of hostages, for urgent efforts toward a sustainable ceasefire and for increased humanitarian aid,” Joly said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Hours before Netanyahu’s statement, Israeli warplanes carried out new sorties in which Palestinian health officials said at least 15 people had been killed, eight of them in the Rafah area.
“We were sleeping inside and, when the strike hit, were thrown outside. After that, another rocket hit,” said Mohammed al-Nahal, an elderly Palestinian standing beside the rubble of a building that had been hit.
“It destroyed the entire home. My daughter was killed. My daughter, her husband, her son, all were martyred.”
The war in Gaza began when Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
In retaliation, Israel launched a military assault on Gaza that health authorities say has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, with thousands more bodies feared lost amid the ruins.
Israel initially stormed northern Gaza and urged residents there to head for so-called safe zones in the south. However, Israeli forces have also targeted those same areas as they shift their offensive south toward Rafah.
“We’re exhausted. Seriously, we’re exhausted. Israel can do whatever it wants. I’m sitting in my tent. I’ll die in my tent,” said Jihan al-Hawajri, who fled multiple times from the far north down the length of the Gaza Strip and now lives with 30 relatives in a tent.
Rafah lies trapped between Egypt to the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to its east and Israeli troops to its north.
Many Palestinians in Rafah came from Gaza City and other parts of the north and want to return there. But so far Israel has shown no willingness to allow a mass movement back north, where it says its troops largely have operational control but still fight pockets of Hamas fighters.
Detailed map showing pre-war Gaza Strip:
Egypt has staunchly refused any exodus of Palestinians onto its soil, fearing Israel will not allow them to return. Israel is not likely to let hundreds of thousands of Palestinians take shelter on its own territory.
“We want to go back to Gaza City. That’s our home,” said Najah Hasheasho, who is sheltering in Rafah with her family.
A neighbour in the camp, Nahed Abu Asi, said that like many, he believes Israel wants to push the population into Egypt permanently.
“We won’t go into Egypt,” he said. “We’ll make our way back to Gaza City and die there — or in any place on the soil of Gaza.”