June 20, 2024

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Fears mounted in Rafah after an Israeli hostage rescue operation left 67 people dead

Jerusalem – The Israeli raids that lit up the night in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday sent waves of fear through 1.4 million Palestinians for whom this strip of land has become a last refuge.

The Israeli army described the attacks that occurred overnight as a cover for a special forces mission to rescue two elderly Israeli-Argentine hostages. The operation succeeded, but at a huge human cost: the enclave's health ministry said at least 67 people were killed in locations across the region. A video clip from a nearby house showed the body of a Palestinian girl, her legs cut into slices of meat. Other footage showed a bleeding boy being carried away and four other children dying on hospital stretchers.

The ministry said that 164 people were killed and 200 others were injured across the Gaza Strip during the past 24 hours. That the night operation focused on Rafah, a place that the Israeli military had until recently described as a place that would protect it from attacks, shocked exhausted residents who had spent months on the move, in what often seemed to them futility. Trying to outrun the bombs.

The Israeli army rescues two hostages amid deadly air strikes on Rafah

In Rafah, they are now crowded into homes and tents, and even sleeping in the streets – dependent on humanitarian aid to stave off famine, and cut off from their loved ones because cellular communications are patchy and there is no electricity to charge most mobile phones.

Mervat, 51 years old, who lives in a tent with her sister’s family in Rafah after her displacement from Gaza City, said: “We are tired and cannot bear any more of this torture.” “All I hope now is for the war to end.”

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“I don’t know where to go,” she added, echoing sentiments being expressed across Gaza. “No place is safe.” She asked that her last name not be used for security reasons.

The conflict began on October 7, when Hamas militants ambushed Israeli border communities from Gaza, killing about 1,200 people and taking 253 hostage. More than 28,000 Palestinians were killed in Israel's retaliatory military campaign, which leveled much of the Gaza Strip, while failing to return most of the prisoners, or to arrest or kill senior leadership figures within Hamas.

Noting that half of Gaza's population is already crammed into the Rafah crossing, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on social media that the looming Israeli campaign “would significantly increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare.”

But Israeli officials now say they cannot complete their battle against Hamas fighters without going after the group in Rafah itself, a message that has alarmed even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strongest diplomatic backer, the United States, which provides much of the weapons that will be used. there.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke on Sunday for the first time in more than three weeks, and a US administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in line with White House rules, said the US position on Rafah had been made “very clear.” They added that the United States would not support such an operation unless Israel had a plan to protect and sustain civilians “that has already been planned, prepared, and is implementable.”

It was not clear whether the US President was aware that a major operation to rescue the two Israeli-Argentine hostages Fernando Simon Merman, 60, and Louis Haar, 70, in Rafah would follow hours later. At a press conference, IDF spokesman Admiral Daniel Hagari said the mission had been planned “for some time.”

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It only lasted a few hours, but its impact continued throughout the day Monday in homes and tents. Civilians reached by phone said they were barely sleeping and were once again facing impossible decisions about where to go, while nowhere was safe.

Rafah was the last refuge for Gaza. The crowded city was now a target.

In late October, Israel asked one million Palestinians in the north to move south for their safety, although intense bombardment continued across the Strip. Later, Israeli forces also advanced into Khan Yunis, the southern area from which they initially asked Gazans to flee. The Israeli authorities also classified the area of ​​a seaside village called Mawasi, west of Khan Yunis, as a “safer area.”

Strikes continued there as well.

One humanitarian worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, said he was packing again, but ran out of options about where to go.

“I am preparing to return to Khan Yunis because the situation in Rafah is unstable at the moment,” said the worker, who fled Khan Yunis after Israeli forces raided the city for the first time in early December.

He said that the Beach Road – the last remaining road linking southern, central and northern Gaza – remains open, although he does not know for how long. In previous forced evictions, some routes identified by the IDF led civilians directly into the line of fire. Israeli forces also arrested an unknown number of people at checkpoints along evacuation routes.

The humanitarian aid worker said he feared this would happen again, and that his family would now move to the small one-bedroom house by the sea where his father used to live. He added that about twenty of his relatives already live there. His family of five will have to join them.

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“A lot of people are moving now,” he said. “We have no choice,” he added. “This is what we do to survive.”

Lovelack reported from London. Karen De Jong in Washington, Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo, Hazem Balousha in Amman, and Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.