In Rafah, People Flee to Nowhere in a Desert of Devastation and Sand

Some 1.2 million Gazans are huddled in a city that has already seen devastating bombings and shellings. They are sure Biden’s warnings will not stop a massive ground attack like there was in Gaza City and Khan Yunis

At nine o’clock on Thursday morning, my friend Fathi Sabah told me that he and 34 of his family members and friends are still in his parents’ house. The house is built on the eastern side of the road that connects Khan Yunis to Rafah, on the eastern outskirts of the Shaboura refugee camp.

Fathi is a journalist and journalism lecturer, in his fifties. Over the course of about half an hour, he described to me in a WhatsApp conversation what was happening in Rafah, and the dense artillery shelling “which scares us more than the bombs from the air,” as he put it.

Based on his description, conversations with two other friends with whom telephone contact was possible for a short time, and a report on the Al Ajyal radio station, I already drafted the following opening: “Warnings from U.S. President Joe Biden to Israel against ‘entry’ into Rafah did not calm the 1.2 million Palestinians crowded into the southern city. They were under no illusions that the tanks would stay to the east of the city and not invade it. On the contrary – large parts of the city, not just the neighboring village of Al-Shuka near the border and the eastern neighborhoods, have been emptying of people in the past two days.”

But at 11:10, his eldest daughter – who, because of her health condition, Fathi had fought like a lion in order for her to go abroad in the third month of the war – sent me a message saying: “A short time ago, a tank shell hit the first floor (of three) in my grandparents’ house. My parents and two brothers and the rest of my family are inside. I called them and they told me there were no injuries and they were trying to get out of the house as quickly as possible. Then another shell landed on the second floor and now no one is answering me.”

Earlier, at a quarter past nine, Fathi reassured me: “We are ‘off the map’ (referring to the army’s instructions for residents to leave the village of Shuka and the neighborhoods in eastern Rafah),” but added that “we know that this is not a guarantee for anything.”

He said that it’s only a matter of a few hours, at most a day, until they too will have to leave the house – the partial stability and the roof they’ve had for a few months.

The shelling is not aimed only at houses in the city’s east, he said. They are not “limited,” as can be understood from the Israeli, and perhaps also U.S. media. On Wednesday, he says, the army shelled a house 100 meters from their home. The municipality building in the center of the city was bombed twice, on two separate days this week. A shell also hit Tel a-Sultan (a refugee neighborhood) in western Rafah. No wonder, then, that all the members of his household were unable to sleep for the past few nights.

“When there’s a bomb, there’s a hiss, or a sharp siren sound. During a shelling, the whole house shakes,” he explains. “The nylon sheets that have replaced the glass in the windows, which were shattered long ago, rustle. From the houses that were bombed, we hear the crackling of broken concrete. During the day, you can see the smoke. At night, it’s pitch dark. Who remembers that we used to have electricity? The small dog [of the daughter who went abroad] is constantly shaking with fear. He trembles and hides among us even when a truck passes outside and honks.”

Due to the night of shelling, when we spoke on Thursday morning, most of the family was taking advantage of the brief lull and were still sleeping. Including his 80-year-old mother. His wife was preparing something in the kitchen. “What will you take when you leave?” I asked, and he said: “Mattresses, blankets, clothes, kitchen utensils. The amount of water we have – which we buy in gallons once a week – is enough for two more days. That’s why we only shower once every two weeks. We’ll also take the little food we have. I couldn’t find any bread this morning. The bakery down the street is already closed. Its owners fled. Maybe I’ll go look for bread in the bakery next to Shaboura [the refugee camp].”

But, he continued, people have also started fleeing from the camp, which lies to the west of his house. It was only on Monday and Tuesday that displaced persons from the Al-Jneineh neighborhood, including our mutual friends from Gaza, began to gather in the camp. Now, as the shellings get closer and closer, those mutual friends are starting to look for a tent and vehicles in order to flee westward. This will be their fourth displacement since the beginning of the war.

For Fathi and his family, this will be their third displacement since October: in the second week of the war, they left the bombed-out Gaza for his wife’s family’s home in Khan Yunis. In December, after a missile struck the room where their sons and cousins were sleeping, and after the eldest son was wounded by shrapnel in his leg and back – they moved to Rafah, to the home of his mother – a widow, a refugee, born in the village of al-Bureir (where today lies Kibbutz Bror Hayil). Each displacement is a result of the army’s advance, and every advance squeezes the displaced into a smaller area in the Gaza Strip.

People were killed in Wednesday’s shelling of Rafah houses, he said. The armed Palestinian fighters, he added, were fighting at the border. “We don’t know who among them have been killed and how many, but those who were killed in the houses were civilians.” He sent the names of those among the dead who had already been identified at the hospital: Jana al-Lulu, one year old; Yazid Mohana, one year old; Ahmed Eid, 10 years old; Lana Eid, 12 years old; Muhammad Eid, 19 years old, Rimas al-Lulu, 27 years old; Bilal Eid, 27 years old; and 35-year-old Mohammed al-Lulu.

“When someone is killed, we don’t cry,” Fathi told me. “We can’t cry. Our eyes are dry, stones instead of tears. Death is a relief for the dead. When my mother-in-law died, I couldn’t cry. Because of all the grief around us, even my wife couldn’t cry for her mother, who had been undergoing dialysis. There are several hundred kidney patients who need regular dialysis. They were treated around the clock at the Yosef al-Najjar hospital. Now it’s abandoned, by order of the army. With all its expensive devices and equipment.”

“Since yesterday, I’ve seen people asking on WhatsApp, where is it possible to get dialysis. A doctor said that Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis will resume functioning in three days. But what will they do until then? Many elderly people are dying in this war, from lack of treatment or because they couldn’t bear the difficult conditions,” he said. Due to the army’s takeover of the Rafah crossing and its closure, sick and wounded patients who were supposed to go abroad for treatment – have remained trapped in the Gaza Strip.

After receiving the message from his daughter, about the shelling of their house, I went through an hour or two of oppressive tension until Fathi answered me again at around 1:30 in the afternoon – this time with a regular mobile phone call, because the WhatsApp connection went silent. He said: “Fifteen minutes after we finished talking in the morning, the first shell hit the first floor, belonging to my brother. They were not there at the time. Five minutes later – another shell hit the same floor.” Ten minutes later – when everybody in the house was already getting ready for the new exodus – a shell hit the second floor where there were nine family members. No one was injured, but they were paralyzed with fear.

When we spoke the second time, Fathi and three family members were still in the house, gathering whatever they could. The rest dispersed and headed to several different new places of refuge. “We will go to Mawasi,” he said. This is the narrow strip of beach that has been filled with “real,” as well as makeshift tents. Fearing that the house would be shelled again with Fathi still inside, I did not prolong the conversation and questions. From the report of Muhammad Al Astal, a reporter from Al Ajyal radio station, I knew that there was not a scrap of free land left for a tent in Mawasi, and in any case, there were no tents to be found.
In the previous two days, the upper floors of residential buildings in the center of the city had been shelled. A station for filling gas balloons was also shelled, and thick black smoke rose from it. This shelling, too, taught the people that they had to flee. Earlier in the morning, Fathi told me that “the streets of Rafah, which in the past six months have been famous for their density – have been emptied of residents and displaced persons.”

“Just a week ago we couldn’t walk in these streets because of the many people, stalls selling everything, people who stop and check and discover that the product is too expensive, children lugging water, tent-neighborhoods on the sidewalks. Now you wouldn’t recognize them: the streets are empty, ghost streets,” he said.
Those whose tents were inside the city folded them up and ran away with them, he said, with their mattresses and mats. But east of Rafah, people who fled did not have time to fold and take the tents, and according to one report, the army set them on fire.

Our mutual friend in Shaboura said that around them people have started leaving, while he and his family were still hesitating. And no, he said, they don’t have a tent and don’t have money to buy a tent at an inflated price.
Al Astal said in a broadcast that the dense and close shelling made it clear to the people that, as was the case in Gaza City and Khan Yunis, they are the prelude to a full-scale ground invasion. Based on what he saw, he said that the number of people displaced for the second, third, and even sixth time, is much higher than the figure of 80,000 given on Wednesday by the United Nations refugee agency (UNRWA).

People who tried to flee towards the evening, he said, could not find a place to situate themselves among the thousands of tents, leaving many stranded on the road at night. Children were crying from thirst, he reported, and women crying over their crying children. There is no institution or organization distributing water, and there are no toilets, he said. During the day, the convoys of the displaced drag on slowly in the intense heat.

On the way to the ruins that Khan Yunis is now there is no shaded place to hide, since the Israeli tanks have already razed and destroyed all the green and fertile land that surrounded the city. People are fleeing in a desert of devastation and sand, Al Astal said. “They know they have to flee from annihilation, from catastrophe – but they are fleeing to nowhere.” He also said the Arab name for holocaust.

On Thursday, around five in the afternoon, when he was at his sister’s house in the Tel a-Sultan neighborhood, Fathi sent me another list of 36 dead whose bodies were recovered from the ruins in the Rafah district in the past 24 hours: among these are eight children, the youngest being a four-month-old baby, and six women.