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Displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip pack their belongings following an evacuation order by the Israeli army on May 6, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: Palestinian civilians in the southern Gazan city of Rafah voiced despair on Monday as Israel dropped fliers urging them to evacuate for their own “safety” ahead of a long-threatened ground invasion.

Israel’s army said it was instructing Palestinian families in eastern Rafah to flee in preparation for an expected ground assault on the city near Gaza’s border with Egypt.

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But as many displaced people packed up their things to move yet again, authorities in Hamas-run Gaza said Israeli airstrikes were already targeting specific areas ordered evacuated in eastern Rafah.

Residents of Rafah said they emerged after a terrifying night of numerous air strikes on Rafah to find fliers falling from the sky telling them to “evacuate immediately”.

Image Credit: AFP

“The army is working with intensive power against the terrorist forces near you,” read a flier circulated in eastern Rafah.

“For your safety, the IDF (Israeli military) tells you to evacuate immediately towards the expanded humanitarian zone of Al Mawasi,” it said, with a map indicating the location to the north of Rafah.

An Israeli military spokesman said the plan was initially for “around 100,000 people” to move.

About 1.2 million people are currently sheltering in Rafah, according to the World Health Organisation, most having fled there during the seven-month war between Israel and Hamas Palestinian militants.

‘Very scared’

Rafah resident Ammar Mohammad Abu Assem told AFP that people had also been receiving calls “telling us to evacuate”.

He slammed the calls as “foolish talk” after Gaza authorities said strikes on Rafah overnight and Monday morning killed at least 26 people.

“After they bomb, they tell us to evacuate?” he said.

Image Credit: AFP

Eyewitnesses described high levels of anxiety and confusion as people began moving from the eastern areas of Rafah, moving their belongings by foot and in overflowing trucks, cars, and donkey-drawn carts.

“We are very scared and afraid because it’s not easy to move from one place to another, from displacement to displacement,” said Hanah Saleh, 40, who had already been displaced from Tal Al-Zaatar in northern Gaza to Rafah.

“We do not know where to go,” Um Ahmed Fasef told AFP, adding that “this is the third time I have been displaced” since the war began.

Amid pouring rain, some of those sheltering in Rafah said they had begun packing up their things from the densely packed tents and preparing to leave even before Israel’s directive arrived.

“Whatever happens, my tent is ready,” a resident told AFP.

‘Where can we go?’

Israel’s army has said the area where people are being asked to go had been equipped with field hospitals, tents and a waterline, while additional food and medical supplies had been stored there.

But aid groups and displaced Gazan warned that the area was already overcrowded, leaving little room for new arrivals.

Osama Al Kahlout, of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza, told AFP that the areas designated for evacuation currently shelter some 250,000 people, many of whom have already been displaced from other areas in the Gaza Strip.

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Image Credit: AFP

Abdul Rahman Abu Jazar, 36, said he and 12 family members were in the designated evacuation area.

Jazar and his family did not know what to do, he said, because the “humanitarian zone” they were told to head for “does not have enough room for us to make tents because they are (already) full of displaced people”.

“Where can we go? We do not know.”

The Israeli military spokesman told reporters that the evacuation “is part of our plans to dismantle Hamas ... we had a violent reminder of their presence and their operational abilities in Rafah yesterday”.

On Sunday, four Israeli soldiers were killed and others wounded, the army said, when a barrage of rockets was fired from an area adjacent to Rafah towards the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza.

‘No credible humanitarian plan’

International aid organisations have voiced alarm at the expected invasion of Rafah.

“From the humanitarian perspective, no credible humanitarian plan for an attack on Rafah exists,” said Bushra Khalidi, advocacy director for Oxfam in the Palestinian territories.

Gaza’s bloodiest-ever war broke out following Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also seized some 250 hostages, with Israel estimating that 128 of them remain in Gaza, including 35 whom the military says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive, aimed at destroying Hamas, has killed at least 34,735 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.