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'Finding a safe place remains elusive' in Gaza

Tania Krämer
December 7, 2023

With Israel expanding its ground operations in the southern Gaza Strip, Palestinians are running out of safe spaces to take shelter.

A view out onto rubble and a crowd of people on a city square as seen through the blown out facade of an apartment building in Rafah, Gaza
The site of a December 4, 2023, Israeli airstrike in Rafah in the southern Gaza StripImage: Mohammed Salem/REUTERS

The news couldn't be more devastating. After two months, the Israeli military is expanding its ground offensive from the north into the southern part of the Gaza Strip, where tens of thousands of Palestinians have been looking for a safer area to evacuate to. 

"We have reached a stage where we no longer feel any security. We have lost our jobs, family members, homes, faith, comfort, and even our city," said Hana Awad, a young female entrepreneur who was displaced from Gaza City in the early days of the war. 

Like tens of thousands of other Palestinians from the northern Gaza Strip, Awad and her family had to relocate to Rafah, near the Egyptian border, when Israel launched its ground operation in late October. Though the Israeli military ordered residents to relocate to "safer areas" in southern Gaza, the south, too, has been subjected to heavy bombing. 

Israeli forces have now surrounded the city of Khan Younis and are operating "in the heart" of Gaza's second-largest city, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said on Wednesday. In recent days, the military issued evacuation notices in several parts of the city, telling people to move further westward, or south to Rafah, noting there would be a pause in fighting to allow this to happen. 

Prior to the week-long November 24-to-December 1 truce, Israel's military instructed residents in the eastern parts of Khan Younis to leave the area. Israeli military officials claim some Hamas leaders are hiding in Khan Younis, which is also the hometown of its Gaza-based leader Yahya Sinwar, considered the architect of the October 7 terror attacks. 

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement that "our forces reach anywhere in the Gaza Strip. Now they are surrounding Sinwar's house," adding, "it's only a matter of time before we get him."

A carload of Palestinians at a crowded scene in Rafah, near Gaza's border with Egypt on December 7, 2023
Palestinians who fled Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip arrive in Rafah near the border with Egypt on December 7, 2023Image: Mohammed Abed/AFP

Pressure mounting in Rafah

"Living in Rafah has become extremely challenging due to the increasing number of displaced people arriving from Khan Younis. This comes on top of all the previously displaced individuals from governorates across the whole of Gaza," said Awad via WhatsApp message — the sound of Israeli drones in the background. "Finding a genuinely safe place remains elusive," she said.

On December 1, a week-long pause in fighting between Israel and the militant Islamist Hamas — classified a terrorist group by the US, the EU, Germany and others — broke down. 

During the truce, 110 Israeli and foreign hostages held by Hamas were released from captivity in Gaza in exchange for 240 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Now, the resumption of fighting is creating further despair and hardship among the people living there. Though some humanitarian aid arrived through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt as part of the truce agreement, it was only a fraction of what entered Gaza before October 7, and, given the current level of destruction and displacement, nowhere near enough to meet needs on the ground. 

With fighting now intensifying in the south of Gaza, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that delivering even limited humanitarian aid has become nearly impossible.

"Amid constant bombardment by the Israel Defense Forces, and without shelter or the essentials to survive, I expect public order to completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions, rendering even limited humanitarian assistance impossible," read a letter to the UN Security Council invoking the rarely used Article 99 of the UN Charter to warn that the conflict may aggravate threats to international peace. 

A young Palestinian boy dressed in black and clearly injured, as indicated by bandages on his head and arm, mourns loved ones killed in an Israeli bombardment of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 7
A young Palestinian boy mourns loved ones killed in an Israeli bombardment of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 7Image: Hatem Ali/AP Photo/picture alliance

Gaza: More hardship for residents

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), an estimated 1.8 million of Gaza's 2.2 million residents — roughly 80% of the population — have been forcibly displaced by the war. While thousands have remained in the north, many heeded IDF calls to move south, seeking shelter in overcrowded UN-run schools, staying with relatives, or living in tents or even cars. 

"All food supplies, mattresses, and blankets are now unavailable. In the last two days, the newly arrived displaced individuals have resorted to spreading pieces of nylon on the ground for makeshift shelter," said Awad, describing the scenes around her.

"Some have slept inside their cars, while others have been forced to sleep directly on the streets and sidewalks. The weather is wintery, making life even more harsh and difficult," she added.

According to figures released by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, over 17,000 Palestinians — many of them women and children — have been killed since the war began. Many more are believed to be missing, presumably under the rubble, awaiting rescue or recovery. 

When confronted with the high level of Palestinian casualties, Israel's government and military blame Hamas for using civilians as human shields. The current Israeli military operation in Gaza was triggered by the terror attacks Hamas carried out October 7 — in them, militants killed 1,200 people and abducted some 240 Israeli and foreign nationals, among them, many civilians of all age groups. Roughly 138 hostages are still believed to be in Gaza today. 

Israeli forces push deeper into southern Gaza

Lack of information

Two months into the war, calls urging Israel to do more to limit further displacement and death among civilians have grown louder.

Last Friday, aiming to warn residents of impending military activity in their area, the Israeli military published a map dividing the Gaza Strip in multiple districts. The map is available on the internet, but with weak communication lines and frequent black outs, NGOs and residents have criticized it as unusable.

Fares Ibrahim and his family are from eastern Khan Younis. They have relocated several times since the war began. The 41-year-old told DW he had heard about the map and also received recorded IDF phone messages instructing him to stay out of certain areas, but he said overall the "messages are unclear."

The Israeli air force, meanwhile, has also been dropping leaflets with further information.

"We gather information from leaflets and discussions among ourselves. However, we are uncertain about specific locations, since we don't have access to the internet," Ibrahim told DW. 

Ibrahim and his family are currently seeking shelter in a school in the city of Khan Younis.

"Despite assurances of protecting civilians, many areas in Khan Younis continue to be targeted, resulting in casualties," said Ibrahim.

Asked about the fate of those in Khan Yunis, Ibrahim said, "There is so much uncertainty... especially with all the talk about a potential [IDF] ground invasion of all of the city."

Edited by: Jon Shelton