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People walk along a crowded main street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Nearly the last place spared an Israeli offensive so far, Rafah’s population has more than quintupled with Palestinians streaming in to escape fighting. They pack by the dozens into apartments. Sidewalks and once-empty lots are clogged with tents full of families. Image Credit: AFP

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: The Abu Mustafa family’s tent is hard against the high concrete and metal fence separating Gaza from Egypt in Rafah, the last relatively safe place in an enclave devastated by Israel’s military offensive, but one that may now also come under attack.

The family is among more than a million Palestinians now crammed into the area around Rafah and fearing they have nowhere left to flee inside a tiny strip largely reduced to rubble and where fighting still rages.

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“Every day, we’re on the run. Being displaced is tough because I have two daughters with disabilities. I can’t carry them around. I don’t have a car or a cart,” said Laila Abu Mustafa.

“If there will be more displacement, I’m not moving,” she said.

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Displaced Palestinian man Naser Abu Mustafa, who fled his house due to Israeli strikes, with his granddaughter as he shelters at the border with Egypt, in Rafah. Image Credit: Reuters

“We’re exhausted. Seriously, we’re exhausted. Israel can do whatever it wants. I’m sitting in my tent. I’ll die in my tent,” said another Jihan Al Hawajri, who fled multiple times from the far north down the length of the Gaza Strip and now lives with 30 relatives in a tent.

Gaza’s southernmost town, Rafah, is bursting at the seams. Nearly the last place spared an Israeli offensive so far, Rafah’s population has more than quintupled with Palestinians streaming in to escape fighting. They pack by the dozens into apartments. Sidewalks and once-empty lots are clogged with tents full of families.

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Panic and despair are rising after Israel said it intends to attack Rafah next. The estimated 1.5 million people sheltering there – more than half of Gaza’s population -- have nowhere to flee in the face of an offensive that has leveled large swaths of the urban landscape in the rest of the territory.

Some are just sick of running.

UN officials warn that an attack on Rafah will be catastrophic, with more than 600,000 children there in the path of an assault. A move on the town and surrounding area also could cause the collapse of the humanitarian aid system struggling to keep Gaza’s population alive.

Israel says it must take Rafah to ensure Hamas’ destruction. On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military to come up with an evacuation plan after the United States said it opposes an attack on Rafah unless provisions are made for its population.

To “conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Thursday.

“This is not something that we’d support,”

US support

Still, Washington has continued its whole-hearted military and diplomatic support for Israel’s campaign despite Israel shrugging off its previous calls to reduce civilian casualties.

In response to those calls, Israel widened its evacuation orders as its forces moved south — yet the death toll in Gaza has continued to mount. Israel says Hamas is responsible for concentrating its forces in civilian areas.

But it’s unclear where civilians would evacuate. Rafah lies trapped between Egypt to the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to its east and Israeli troops to its north. Earlier in the war, Israel declared a sliver of rural area on the coast neighboring Rafah, known as Muwasi, to be a safe zone. But in recent weeks it has bombarded the zone and sent troops to seize parts of it.

Many Palestinians in Rafah came from Gaza City and other parts of the north and want to return there. But so far Israel has shown no willingness to allow a mass movement back north, where it says its troops largely have operational control but still fight pockets of Hamas fighters.

Tent city

Egypt has staunchly refused any mass exodus of Palestinians onto its soil, fearing Israel will not allow them to return. Israel is not likely to let hundreds of thousands of Palestinians take shelter on its own territory.

A large area of empty dunes between the town of Rafah and the sea is now built up with a dense tent city erected by those streaming in over the past month.

When winter rains hit, the area turns to cold mud, seeping into tents full of extended families with children. Women hang up bedding on clotheslines in the morning to keep them dry during the day, then lay them on the ground at night to sleep.

In Rafah town itself, the main squares and streets are full of tents. Other families fill classrooms at UN schools or crowd with relatives in apartments. Everyone is hungry and sick; colds, coughs and intestinal disorders run rampant. Even simple medicines are difficult to find, requiring an hourslong wait at the pharmacy.

The supply chain for everything from canned food and flour to diapers comes almost entirely from the trickle of aid trucks that Israel allows into Gaza for distribution by the UN and other humanitarian groups. Large impromptu outdoor markets packed with people fill main avenues as many sell parts of allotments they receive.

“Any large-scale military operation among this population can only lead to additional layers of endless tragedy,” Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, the main agency leading the humanitarian effort, told The Associated Press.