600,000 Palestinian Kids in Rafah Can’t “Evacuate” Safely, UNICEF Official Says

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Rolling its tanks this week into Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military moved swiftly to take control of the Palestinian side of the border crossing with Egypt. The takeover severed the only corridor connecting Palestinians in Gaza to land not controlled by Israel. In a gratuitous symbolic act, an Israeli tank bulldozed the “I love Gaza” monument greeting visitors as they cross into the territory from Egypt.

The attack — and the looming full-scale invasion of Rafah being threatened by Israel despite heavily qualified White House objections — leaves Palestinian civilians bearing the brunt of the relentless assault. Israel quickly closed the Rafah border crossing. The closing leaves the trickling spigots of aid to Gaza virtually shut off.

“They’re exhausted, traumatized, sick, hungry, and their ability to safely evacuate is limited.”

Residents of Gaza are once again being forced into a dystopian game show where they must scramble to comprehend maps the Israelis created, marking which squared-off area they must move to in order to avoid certain death. Images relayed on social media by the Israeli military’s Arabic language spokesperson instructed civilians in Rafah to move back toward central Gaza to Khan Younis, a territory left in ruins after sustained Israeli air and ground attacks.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, is pleading with the Israeli government and its backers to ceasefire and reverse course on plans for a full-scale Rafah invasion.

“There’s 600,000 children that are seeking shelter in Rafah and that many of them have been displaced multiple times already,” UNICEF’s Tess Ingram, who recently returned from Gaza, told The Intercept. “They’re exhausted, traumatized, sick, hungry, and their ability to safely evacuate is limited.”

“The area that they’re being directed to evacuate to is not safe. It’s not safe because there aren’t the services there to meet their basic needs, water, toilets, shelter,” she said in an interview. “But it’s also not safe because we know that that area has been subject to strikes despite being a so-called safe zone. So we’re really concerned about that impact of a ground offensive on one of the most densely populated areas in the world.”

Prior to the onset of Israel’s scorched-earth war on Gaza, Rafah was a city of approximately 250,000 people. As a result of Palestinians fleeing Israeli attacks, the population is currently estimated at 1.4 million.

“The reality for kids living there is shocking, honestly. People are living in really squalid conditions,” Ingram said. “It’s just incredibly crowded space. Everywhere you walk, you’re almost shoulder to shoulder with another person. Makeshift shelters expand from buildings across the sidewalk onto the road. People are living wherever they can find space in, you know, under bits of tarpaulin or blankets. And this expands as far as the eye can see.”

Ingram said UNICEF has been unable to get supplies or fuel into Gaza since Sunday.

“We are really scraping the bottom of the barrel now with the fuel that we have left in Gaza. We haven’t been able to get more in,” she said. “And that fuel is the lifeblood of the humanitarian aid operations in Gaza. And without it, important systems like [desalination] plants, hospitals, food delivery and trucks, they’ll all cease to exist.”

Israel Won’t Back Down

The onset of the dire conditions came as Israeli forces continued to bomb Rafah and move forces into the environs, both strategically seizing territory like the border crossing and amassing troops in preparation for an all-out invasion.

Over the past seven months of unrelenting attacks against the civilian population of the Strip, during which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, Israeli officials and spokespeople have told the world Israel has no intention to occupy Gaza. The seizure of Rafah is a powerful reminder that this was and remains a lie.

Even without its tanks positioned at the crossing, Israel wields supreme authority of what crosses into the beleaguered territory; Israel already had security inspections set up on the Egyptian side, which have been delaying the delivery of aid since last year. The presence of tanks on the Gaza side only serves to publicly militarize that reality.

The Biden administration has spent weeks pushing a narrative in the media that Rafah represents a red line for the administration. Yet when President Joe Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the operation, a senior Israeli official said, “Biden didn’t pull the hand [brake] on the capture of the Rafah crossing.”

The White House expressed some mild concerns about the seizure of the border once the tanks rolled in, but National Security Council spokesperson Adm. John Kirby defended the Israeli move, saying the administration had received assurances from the Israelis that it would not be “a major ground operation.”

 Civil defense teams and citizens continue search and rescue operations after an airstrike hits the building belonging to the Maslah family during the 32nd day of Israeli attacks in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza on November 7, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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Israel’s War on Gaza

While the U.S. symbolically delayed one weapons shipment, American officials made clear they intend to continue arming Israel. Israel downplayed the significance of the weapons delay and said the longtime allies are working out the issues behind closed doors.

The Israeli government has offered a potpourri of justifications for the Rafah incursion: to defeat four Hamas battalions, to shut down smuggling routes, to put pressure on Hamas to sign a deal to release Israeli hostages. The families of Israeli hostages, for their part, have been holding large demonstrations demanding Netanyahu sign a deal immediately to free the captives.

Such a deal was on the table when Israel took the border crossing, but Israeli officials have redoubled their vows to conquer Rafah with or without an agreement. 

UNICEF estimates that people in Rafah have approximately 3 liters of safe water per day and must use that for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. The agency says that a minimum of 15 liters per person, per day is recommended for populations in an emergency. There is currently one toilet per 850 people. Diarrhea is rampant, women and girls do not have consistent access to sanitary products, and diapers for babies are scarce.

“People can’t wait hours to use a bathroom or they don’t feel safe doing so. And so people have to resort to other methods, like open defecation,” said Ingram, the UNICEF official. “When you walk through Rafah, you often see and smell and have to move around leaking sewage because the sanitation systems are not working properly, people don’t have other options.”

If Israel expands its operations in Rafah, causing a mass exodus of people, the areas they are being directed to flee to do not have even the fragile, inadequate infrastructure.

“It’s hard to fathom that a situation that is already so bad can become worse, but it can become worse for these people if they are forced to evacuate to an area that is unsafe, that has no basic services that they need to survive. And Rafah was already lacking both of those things,” Ingram said.

“When we’re talking about vulnerable children who have survived seven months of war and who are bearing the scars of that war, either physically or psychologically, their ability to move to these sorts of areas and survive there is impacted because they’re exhausted and they’re traumatized, and they need greater support, not less.”

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