Israeli military warns more than 100,000 people in Rafah to evacuate

By 9 am local time, the military had begun dropping leaflets in eastern Rafah ordering people to evacuate, and it said it would also notify people by texts, phone calls and broadcasts in Arabic.
Last Updated : 06 May 2024, 15:33 IST
Last Updated : 06 May 2024, 15:33 IST

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The Israeli military on Monday said it was asking about 110,000 Palestinians sheltering in eastern Rafah in the Gaza Strip to temporarily evacuate to what it described as a humanitarian zone, a sign that Israel was inching closer to invading the city in defiance of international pressure.

By 9 am local time, the military had begun dropping leaflets in eastern Rafah ordering people to evacuate, and it said it would also notify people by text messages, phone calls and broadcasts in Arabic. An Israeli military spokesperson would not say if or when troops would enter the city, but described the evacuation as "part of plans to dismantle Hamas" and to bring back hostages taken on October 7.

Since the start of Israel's ground offensive in Gaza last year, about 1 million people have fled to Rafah, the southernmost city in the enclave, where they have been living in dire conditions. Israel has told civilians in many parts of Gaza to evacuate from their homes for safety since the start of the war. But in many instances the places Israel said would be safe for Palestinians in Gaza were also targeted by Israeli airstrikes.

Israel's closest allies, including the United States, have been urging it not to send troops into Rafah, saying such an operation would take a heavy toll on civilians. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected those calls, saying Israel needs to defend itself and eliminate Hamas, which attacked Israel on October 7.

The evacuation order came a day after officials said months of talks over a cease-fire and the release of hostages had hit an impasse, with Israel and Hamas still sharply at odds over the duration of any truce. Hamas wants a permanent cease-fire while Netanyahu has expressed openness to only a temporary halt in the fighting and has said Israel would invade Rafah with or without an agreement.

Salama Marouf, the head of the Hamas-run Gaza government media office, said in a statement Monday that the evacuation order showed that Israel "went into truce negotiations deceptively without abandoning the idea of ​​a broad aggression against Rafah." He said the announcement was "a real test of the seriousness" of the countries that had warned against an invasion of the city.

On Sunday, Netanyahu repeated his promises to destroy Hamas, vowing in English, in a speech marking Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, that Israel "will defeat our genocidal enemies."

About two weeks ago, Israeli authorities said that before they moved on Rafah, they would expand a humanitarian zone in nearby Muwasi where civilians could shelter. On Monday, the Israeli military said that it had done so, and that the zone had field hospitals, tents and larger supplies of food, water and medicine.

The military is not calling for a "wide-scale evacuation of Rafah," Nadav Shoshani, the military spokesperson, said Monday. "This is a very specific scoped operation at the moment to move people out of harm's way." The order applied both to residents of Rafah and to those who fled there from elsewhere in Gaza.

Previous Israeli evacuation orders offer no clear clues about when a ground operation in Rafah might start. Israel began instructing civilians to leave northern Gaza and move south for their own safety around two weeks before its invasion began October 27.

Days before launching an invasion of the city of Khan Younis in central Gaza in early December, Israel again urged civilians to move south. On that occasion, they also designated certain areas of the city to be safe, making announcements and dropping leaflets to convey the information.

In both cases, civilians reported that obeying the orders was fraught with peril, leaving them with agonizing decisions and often no safe options. Northern Gaza was under heavy bombardment in the weeks before the invasion, while people in Khan Younis said the evacuation orders were inadequately communicated and sometimes left them with just hours to escape.

UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said Monday it would not evacuate its staff from Rafah and would continue to provide humanitarian aid to those who have taken refuge there.

"An Israeli military offensive will lead to an additional layer of an already unbearable tragedy for the people in Gaza," Philippe Lazzarini, the agency's commissioner general, said on social media.

Published 06 May 2024, 15:33 IST

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