By Mohammad Salem and Nidal al-Mughrabi
RAFAH, Gaza Strip/DOHA (Reuters) – 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.
“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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered an evacuation plan for the civilians who crowd Rafah, camping in streets and empty lots, on the beach and like the Abu Mustafa family on the sandy strip along the Egyptian border.
Aid agencies say that any assault on the city will be catastrophic in a war that has already caused untold misery.
The war began on Oct. 7 when the militant group Hamas that controls Gaza stormed the border fence with Israel, sending in fighters who killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and seized about 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Four months later, Gaza is in ruins. Under a massive daily bombardment, Israeli ground forces have overrun most of the enclave, smashing houses, public buildings and infrastructure with air raids, artillery fire and controlled detonations.
Palestinian health authorities say more than 28,000 people have been killed in the war, about 70% of them women and children. More than 85% of Gazans are homeless. A U.N. survey found that nearly one in 10 children under five are acutely malnourished.
Talks for a deal on a ceasefire and the release of hostages have so far failed to bring an agreement. Last week Israel rejected a Hamas proposal, saying it would not stop fighting while the group retained brigades that Israel says are hiding in Rafah.
Egyptian security sources said more high-level talks were planned for Tuesday with senior officials from Qatar and the United States to attend, as well as Israeli and Palestinian delegations.
Israeli air raids have started targeting Rafah over recent days.
On Sunday, Hamas said Israeli air raids in the Gaza Strip over the previous four days had killed two hostages and injured eight others.
The group said any Israeli assault on Rafah would “blow up” the discussions for deal to free the remaining hostages.
EVACUATION PLAN FOR CIVILIANS
Speaking in an interview due to air on U.S. network ABC on Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated that Israeli forces would assault Rafah, but said they were preparing “a detailed plan” for where civilians there could go.
“We’re going to do it. We’re going to get the remaining Hamas terrorist battalions in Rafah,” he said, adding “we’re going to do it while providing safe passage for the civilian population”.
A spokesperson for France’s Foreign Ministry said “a large-scale Israeli offensive at Rafah would create a catastrophic humanitarian situation of a new and unjustifiable dimension”.
Against the border fence, topped with barbed wire, the Abu Mustafa family hangs laundry between tents. They cook what little food they can gather in empty tin cans over a fire in the sand.
Fear of an assault on Rafah is the constant subject of every conversation in the crammed city said Mariam, a woman who fled her Gaza City home early in the war with her three children aged 5, 7 and 9.
“I can’t describe how we feel. There is turmoil in my head. My children keep asking me when Israel will invade Rafah and where we will go and if we will die. And I don’t have the answers,” she said.
(Reporting by Mohammad Salem in Rafah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Doha, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Ahmed Mohamed Hassan in Cairo; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Sharon Singleton)
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