For Gazans Relocating Once Again, Conditions Are ‘Horrific’

As Israel’s invasion of Rafah stretches into its third week, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the southern Gaza city have encountered miserable conditions in their new encampments and shelters.

Shortages of food, clean water and bathrooms have made the experience of relocating particularly dreadful, Gazans say, and price gouging has made the trip unaffordable for those who need transportation, including older and disabled people.

“We’re dealing with horrific circumstances,” said Khalil el-Halabi, a retired U.N. official in his 70s who left Rafah last week for Al-Mawasi, a beachside area that Israel has designated as a “humanitarian zone.”

“We don’t have what we need,” Mr. Halabi said. “We can barely even find water.”

More than 800,000 people have left Rafah in the past two weeks, a United Nations official said on Monday. Israel’s military said the same day that more than 950,000 civilians in the city had relocated since it gave expanded evacuation orders. A military spokesman said about 300,000 to 400,000 civilians remain there.

A satellite view from Maxar Technologies showing an area of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 4.Credit…Maxar Technologies, via Reuters
The same area on May 15.Credit…Maxar Technologies, via Reuters

The latest wave of displacement in Gaza began on May 6 when Israel sent out evacuation notices and launched military operations in eastern Rafah, which is along the border with Egypt. More than half of the enclave’s civilians had been seeking refuge in the city — most of them after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza multiple times.

Ali Jebril, 27, a wheelchair-bound basketball player, said he and his family paid $600 to have 35 people taken from eastern Rafah to Khan Younis by bus earlier this month.

Mr. Jebril, who said his wheelchair can’t navigate in the sandy beachside areas where many have resettled, has moved to a tent on the grounds of a hospital in Khan Younis.

“We’re not living a dignified life,” he said. “We’re confronting a catastrophe.”

The war, he said, has made him feel that he has become a burden on society, frequently asking others to help him.

Since Israel’s incursions into Rafah, the once overcrowded shelters and tent villages in the city have largely emptied out, Edem Wosornu, an official with the United Nations’ office for humanitarian affairs, told the Security Council on Monday. People have moved to areas near Khan Younis and Deir al Balah and set up makeshift camps that lack sanitation, water, drainage or shelter, she said.

“We have described it as a catastrophe, a nightmare, as hell on earth,” Ms. Wosornu said. “It is all of these, and worse.”

Since the beginning of the war in October, three-quarters of Gaza’s population has been displaced, with many people moving four or five times, she said.

Israel has cast the orders as a humanitarian step to protect civilians ahead of further military action, which they say is necessary to root out Hamas fighters in southern Gaza. But aid groups said the additional displacement is worsening an already catastrophic humanitarian situation.

Waiting for water at a camp west of Deir al Balah in Gaza on Tuesday.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In its latest update, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs described people living in clusters of 500 to 700 tents, many of them fashioned out of blankets, nylon or whatever other materials were available. Some tents were set up on an unstable beach slope, with waste from higher areas rolling downhill past the dwellings into the sea, according to the report.

Mr. Halabi said that food was available in markets, but that his family was so low on money that paying for it was hard.

“After seven months of war, we barely have anything,” he said.

While an increasing number of commercial trucks have entered Gaza recently, aid coming to the south through the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings has come to a near halt. UNRWA, the primary U.N. agency for Palestinian aid, said that in a 16-day period through Tuesday, just 69 aid trucks entered through the two crossings — the lowest rate since the first weeks of the war.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the chief U.N. agency that aids Palestinians, wrote in a social media post that each relocation comes with risks and takes a heavy toll.

“Every time, they are forced to leave behind the few belongings they have: mattresses, tents, cooking utensils and basic supplies that they cannot carry or pay to transport,” he wrote. “Every time, they have to start from scratch, all over again. ”

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