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Israel expands evacuation orders in Rafah as aid groups struggle to prepare

Palestinians pile their belongings on a vehicle as it drives to safer areas in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Friday.
AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians pile their belongings on a vehicle as it drives to safer areas in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Friday.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel's military issued new evacuation orders in Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, forcing even more Palestinians to relocate on Saturday ahead of a likely expanded ground operation there.

The new evacuation orders encompass areas closer to the city center. Israel warned people that the military will act with "great force against terror organizations" in those neighborhoods as it goes after what it says are Hamas battalions in Rafah.

The new military orders came despite international concerns over the danger to the more than 1 million Palestinians who'd sought shelter in Rafah, half of whom are children, according to UNICEF. More than half of Gaza's population had been displaced in Rafah, and it's where most aid groups had been based for much of the past seven months of the war.

Meanwhile, Israel's military also called on residents in parts of northern Gaza's Jabalia and Beit Lahia to head to the western part of Gaza City, saying Hamas had regrouped in those areas.

More than 75% of the Gaza Strip is under evacuation orders, according to the United Nations. People in Rafah tell NPR there's nowhere safe to flee to in Gaza.

The Israeli military estimates 300,000 residents already left Rafah this week following initial evacuation orders for eastern parts of the city on Monday. Many left on foot, dragging children and pushing the wounded in wheelchairs on roads strewn with garbage and overflowing with sewage.

The military launched its ground assault into Rafah Monday night, erecting Israeli flags along Gaza's border with Egypt. The operation effectively closed Gaza's main crossing for aid and fuel, and means severely wounded Palestinians and foreign aid workers can't leave.

The Israeli military described its actions as "precise operations in specific areas of eastern Rafah" and accused Hamas of using Gaza's residents as "human shields for its terrorist activities and infrastructure." In leaflets and messages, the military told people to head to areas of al-Mawasi and Khan Younis.

Hamas, which carried out the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that sparked the war, says cease-fire talks that took place in Cairo this week have come to a standstill. The group accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of wanting the war to continue in order "to achieve his personal goals and political ambitions."

Aid groups race to set up services outside Rafah

UNRWA, the main U.N. agency overseeing aid for Palestinians, says no food or medical supplies have entered Gaza from the territory's two main crossings since Sunday. Only a few trucks have entered Gaza from a northern border crossing, far short of the amount needed to stave off hunger and starvation, according to aid groups.

The U.N. confirms, however, that 200,000 liters of fuel were transferred by Israel into Gaza on Friday through the southern Kerem Shalom crossing after nearly all bakeries across Gaza had shut down. Hospitals are also running low on fuel for generators.

"If we don't start getting food ... on Sunday, we will begin to run out. It means there's nothing left in the warehouses to distribute," Scott Anderson, senior deputy director for UNRWA in Gaza, tells NPR.

The World Food Program says its main warehouse in Rafah is inaccessible due to the fighting and evacuation orders.

Rafeek el-Madhoun, program manager for Rebuilding Alliance in Gaza, which partners with the WFP to distribute hot meals, says they've reduced the number of cooking stations in Rafah and are racing to set up new ones in areas of Gaza where people are fleeing to.

"With the ongoing invasion and the increasing number of refugees, we contacted the WFP and told them we can manage for two to three weeks max," he says, referring to the amount of food they have on stock.

El-Madhoun says they are preparing up to 60,000 meals a day, around double what they had been preparing as the needs of people increased this week. Meanwhile, the price of food for basics like potatoes in the market is skyrocketing and vegetables and fruits are in short supply, he says.

Most of Gaza faces evacuation orders as hospitals close in Rafah

The United Nations says most of the Gaza Strip is under evacuation orders, as people are squeezed into smaller and smaller parts of the territory along its Mediterranean coast.

Aid groups are rushing to establish field clinics and kitchens in the area of al-Mawasi, which the Israeli military identified as an "expanded humanitarian zone." Aid groups say they are still trying to build health care services in this area.

"Life in Rafah right now is a nightmare. There is bombing and shelling constantly, nearly every 10 minutes," says Moses Kondowe, team lead for Gaza for Project Hope, which is working to move its field clinic in Rafah to Khan Younis.

All team members have been displaced and have started living in tents, the nonprofit organization says.

"Thousands of people are still stuck here with nowhere to go." Kondowe says. "The situation is unbearable."

Nearly daily airstrikes on homes across Rafah have killed dozens of people this week, many of them women and children, according to Gaza's health ministry and survivors NPR has spoken to.

It comes as hospitals and field clinics close their doors and evacuate patients in Rafah, according to medics there.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department said in a report that it was "reasonable to assess" that Israel had violated international humanitarian law while carrying out operations in Gaza.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.