Israel steps up attacks on Rafah as Hamas changes stance on ceasefire

A sense of panic swept through Rafah, southern Gaza, on Monday after Israel issued an evacuation order for parts of the city, which has become home to more than a million Palestinians seeking refuge from seven months of war .

People dismantled their tents in the pouring rain. Fuel and food prices skyrocketed. And some weighed the potential risk of staying against the dangers of traveling through a war zone.

“If we have to leave, we will enter the unknown,” said Nidal Kuhail, 29, a resident of Gaza City and refugee in Rafah with his family. “Will we have somewhere to go? Will we be able to find a place to pitch the tent?”

His tent is in an area of ​​Rafah not covered by the evacuation order, but his family was still overcome with anxiety and divided over what to do next.

“Some say, ‘Let’s get out of here soon,’ while others say, ‘Let’s wait a while,’” said Kuhail, who before the war worked as a manager at a Thai restaurant in Gaza City.

Field workers at UNRWA, the U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees, estimated Monday that about 200 people an hour are fleeing the evacuation zone through major exit routes, said Sam Rose, planning director of the aid agency, who has spent the last two weeks in Gaza.

The atmosphere in Rafah was hopeful over the weekend as reports emerged of progress in ceasefire talks, Rose said. But that optimism turned to omnipresent fear and anxiety after Israel issued its evacuation order for the eastern parts of the city, indicating it may proceed with a planned ground invasion in an attempt to dismantle Hamas in Gaza.

Many in Rafah said they knew they had to leave, but didn’t know how to handle it.

Mousa Ramadan al-Bahabsa, 55, took refuge with his 11 children inside a tent he had erected at a United Nations school near al-Najma Square in Rafah. Since the war began in October they have moved three times, he said.

After the evacuation order was issued, he said, people living at the school looked at each other in shock. Then many began to pack their bags. But she didn’t have enough money to leave.

“All the people around me are evacuating,” said al-Bahabsa, who said the war had left him penniless. “I don’t know where to go or who to ask for help.”

Leaving Rafah is expensive, Palestinians interviewed said Monday. Even though the Israeli army tells people to move to an area that is less than 10 miles away, taking a taxi out of town would cost more than $260, and leaving in a smaller rickshaw would cost half that. A donkey cart would cost about $13, but even that is too expensive for many people.

The order also led to a rise in prices, Palestinians in Rafah said. The cost of fuel has jumped to $12 a liter from $8, as has the cost of basic food items such as sugar, which has risen to $10 a kilo from $3, they said.

“I don’t even have 1 shekel,” al-Bahabsa said, referring to the currency used in Israel and Gaza. “I have already lost my home, but I don’t want to lose any of my children.”

Across town, Malak Barbakh, 38, was trying to reunite her eight children while her husband packed their things. But his eldest son had run away somewhere, she said, after telling them he didn’t want to leave Rafah after taking refuge there for so long.

“What scares me most is the unknown,” Ms. Barbakh said. “I’m so sick of this bad life.”

To make things easier, he said, the family planned to return home to the town of Khan Younis, even though they know he is no longer there.

“I hope we can build our tent on the rubble of our house,” he said.

The evacuation order came as a shock to 26-year-old Mahmoud Mohammed al-Burdeiny. He said he thought Israel was only using the idea of ​​an invasion of Rafah as a bluff to get a better deal from Hamas in the ceasefire talks.

This meant he had no intention of leaving his home in southeast Rafah. But now she felt the danger was real and he had spent the morning watching the neighbors flee.

“I saw the long road near the beach full of trucks, vans and cars,” said al-Burdeiny, who worked as a taxi driver before the war. He said that the sight made him feel “infected with the disease of leaving, like the others”.

So Mr al-Burdeiny and his wife began packing their bags and planning for the worst. They realized that they could take the doors of their home with them to use as shelter. And they might even dismantle furniture to use as firewood.

Otherwise, al-Burdeiny feared, everything would end up looted or buried under the rubble of an air attack.

“I don’t want what happened to the people of Gaza City and what happened to the north to happen again in Rafah,” he said. “I’m just so worried about my whole family.”