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Gazans Struggle to Find Food and Shelter in Rafah as Israeli Invasion Threat Looms

WorldMiddle EastGazans Struggle to Find Food and Shelter in Rafah as Israeli Invasion Threat Looms

The fear has been building for weeks.

More than one million Palestinians fled into Rafah, the southernmost region of Gaza, hoping to escape the war. Now, Israel has threatened to extend its invasion there, too.

Amid days filled with struggles to secure food, water and shelter, uncertainty has dominated people’s conversations, said Khalid Shurrab, a charity worker staying with his family in a leaky tent in Rafah.

“We have two options, either to stay as we are or face our destiny — death,” said Mr. Shurrab, 36. “People literally have no other safe place to go.”

Rafah, which so far had been spared the brunt of Israel’s onslaught, has become a new focal point of a war now in its sixth month. It is where most of Gaza’s 2.2 million people have ended up, multiplying the area’s population and exhausting its limited resources.

And now, with Israel signaling its intent to go after Hamas militants in Rafah, and Egypt blocking most Gazans from crossing its border to the south, families fear they are trapped.

In Rafah Governorate, home to fewer than 300,000 people before the war, space has become a rare commodity. Displaced families pack schools, tent camps sprawl across empty lots and pedestrians crowd streets.

Cooking gas is so scarce that the air is acrid with smoke from fires burning salvaged wood and chopped-up furniture. Fuel is expensive, so people walk, ride bicycles or take carts drawn by donkeys and horses. Since Rafah sits along the Egyptian border, where most of the aid enters from, it receives more supplies than other parts of Gaza.

Still, many residents are so desperate that they throw rocks at aid trucks to try to make them stop or swarm them to try to grab whatever they can. Hundreds of people were killed and injured amid a stampede and Israeli gunfire when a convoy of trucks tried to deliver aid in Gaza City, in the territory’s north, last month.

Most people taking shelter in Rafah spend their days trying to secure basic needs: finding clean water for drinking and bathing, getting enough food and calming their children when Israeli strikes hit nearby.

“Everything is difficult here,” said Hadeel Abu Sharek, 24, who is staying with her 3-year-old daughter and other relatives in a shuttered restaurant in Rafah. “Our dreams have been smashed. Our life has become a nightmare.”

Her family usually only manages to find enough food for one meal per day, she said, and while they boil water before drinking it, many of them have been sick, including her daughter. They have no easy place to obtain medicine.

“The bombing is terrifying, especially for the children,” she said, adding that everyone clustered in a corner when they heard Israeli strikes, fearing the roof would fall on them.

The restaurant was their second stop since leaving their homes in northern Gaza during the start of the war. They now have to move again, she said. The restaurant is kicking them out, but gave them some metal bars and waterproof cloth to build a makeshift tent.

Shelter is so scarce that rents have skyrocketed, schools have become de facto refugee camps and many families sleep in tents or string up plastic sheeting to protect themselves from the rain and cold.

Not long after the invasion began, Ismail al-Afify, a tailor from northern Gaza, set up camp with his family under a concrete stairwell in a school. The building has since filled with many other refugees, with four families sometimes sharing a single classroom.

To meet their needs, Mr. al-Afify’s sons keep an eye out for aid and water trucks so they can rush over and try to get supplies or fill their buckets with water. When they have flour, his daughter-in-law bakes flatbread with other women in a makeshift clay oven in the street.

He often goes to bed hungry, said Mr. al-Afify, 62.

Shortages of fuel and other supplies have nearly crippled the local medical facilities.

In an interview, Marwan al-Hams, the director of Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital, Rafah’s largest, listed the services it could no longer provide: intensive care, complex surgeries, CT scans or M.R.I.s and cancer treatments. The doctors lack painkillers and medicines for diabetes and high blood pressure. Their ability to provide dialysis is so reduced that patients with kidney diseases have died.

The hospital itself is crowded, with displaced families sheltering on the grounds and in the hallways. There are only 63 beds for about 300 patients, he said.

“Most cases are dealt with on the floor,” he said.

In the early months of the war, the Israeli military repeatedly ordered people in Gaza to evacuate toward the south for their own safety. But Israel has often struck in Rafah, too, killing people and damaging buildings. On Wednesday, Israeli forces hit an aid warehouse in Rafah that killed a U.N. worker, according to UNRWA, the largest aid group on the ground in Gaza.

Aid groups and United Nations officials have warned that a Rafah invasion would be catastrophic for civilians in Gaza, and President Biden called such a move a “red line,” though he added that helping Israel defend itself remained “critical.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel responded with his own red line: “That Oct. 7 doesn’t happen again,” he said, referring to the Hamas-led attack on Israel that started the war. Israeli officials say about 1,200 people were killed and some 240 taken to Gaza as captives.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel launched a bombing campaign and invasion that the Gaza health authorities say has killed more than 31,000 people, a toll that does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

In mid-February, an Israeli strike hit the al-Hoda Mosque in Rafah, collapsing its roof and heavily damaging the building, according to the Palestinian news media and Aaed Abu Hasanein, the facility’s prayer leader. It was unclear why the building was struck. Israel has accused Hamas of using civilian buildings like schools and mosques for terrorist activities, a charge Hamas denies.

The strike rendered most of the building unusable, Mr. Abu Hasanein said.

“As you see, there is nothing left,” he said. “Everything is gone.”

But people still pray in the mosque, he added. About 150 people can fit in the hallway where visitors once left their shoes, the least damaged part of the building.

“This is the safest, unburned place,” Mr. Abu Hasanein said.

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