Starved and exhausted, Rafah IDPs struggle to survive

Um Ahmad frantically counted her children as they lay in a tent near Abu Youssef Al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah. Israeli bombs were raining down all around her. She was terrified.

“One, two, three, four, five,” she counted, her voice shaking with dread. She had lost a sixth child during their second forced displacement from Khan Younis months ago. She was not prepared to lose another. 

Trembling, the 45-year-old scrambled to carry whatever she could on one arm and slung her four-year-old special needs son on the other. The eldest of her children was barely 12, but old enough to watch the little ones, who silently followed along. 

Tearful, destitute and with no other choice, she set off on a 10-kilometre trek back to Khan Younis with no destination in mind, her only support, the kindness of strangers.

With her husband trapped in Gaza City in the north, she didn’t think she would ever see him again.

Um Ahmad and her kids are among merely 360,000 people who fled Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah earlier this month when Israel ordered a mass evacuation, according to a UN report

The exodus began soon after occupation forces sent phone messages and dropped leaflets on May 6, just minutes before intensifying their bombing of what was supposedly the final safe frontier for Gaza’s besieged population. 

Even though Israel had been threatening to attack Rafah for weeks, the sight of Israeli tanks rolling across the Rafah border sent shockwaves across the Strip and the world. 

Following talks in Cairo, Hamas had just agreed to a modified ceasefire deal, and for a brief moment, Gazans dared to celebrate until news broke that Israeli’s war cabinet had rejected the deal, saying it falls short of its demands. 

When it invaded part of eastern Rafah, seizing control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, Israel stopped all fuel and humanitarian aid from entering the Strip, threatening an already starving population with outright famine, according to UN reports

In the West Bank, Israeli protesters blocked aid trucks heading to Gaza, destroying food packages and ripping open bags of much-needed flour and grain.

The UN Aid Coordination Office OCHA warned that a mass evacuation order on this scale would be “impossible to carry out safely,” stating in its latest update that over 800,000 have already been displaced from Rafah, relocating to areas lacking basic necessities such as water and food.

Since the start of violence in October, 1.5 million people have sought refuge in Rafah, the majority internally displaced, as fighting ravaged the rest of the Strip over the past seven months. 

Back to the rubble

According to the UN, nine sites are sheltering displaced people in Rafah, which is home to only three clinics and six warehouses. But with no fuel coming in, the humanitarian operation will be “in its grave,” said OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke at a press conference in Geneva. 

On Tuesday, UNRWA said on X that it will suspend all food distribution in Rafah, citing the lack of supplies as Israel continues the closure of all border crossings. The refugee agency added that only seven of its 24 health centres were operational and that safety concerns have rendered UNRWA warehouses inaccessible.   

Desperate families were forced to leave what little they had behind and head back to a decimated Khan Younis where they moved back into what remained of their destroyed homes.

Others headed to the adjacent seafront encampment at Al-Mawasi, where people use seawater for washing and walk at least four kilometres for a jerry can of drinkable water. 

“About 60% of people coming in for treatment have hepatitis, a debilitating liver disease, while almost all patients suffer severe deficiency in essential vitamins,” Dr Moataz Al-Qudra told The New Arab.

Al-Qudra is stationed at a makeshift clinic at Al-Mawasi Khan Younis.

“Skin diseases caused by high temperatures, water shortages and soil bacteria are worsening because there is no medicine,” said Al-Qudra. “And it’s not just physical, people are also psychologically traumatised.” 

Ahmed K., who preferred to withhold his last name, recounted his ordeal following the bombing of his three-story family home in Rafah in an Israeli air raid, which killed his mother and two other family members.   

“Me, my sister, grandmother and uncle survived,” said Ahmed, 29, recalling how it took three hours to rescue him from under the rubble where he was trapped in what used to be his refuge.

Ahmed, who is single, had a head injury and the lower part of his foot was shattered. He waited two full days, partly on a hospital floor in Abu Youssef Al-Najjar, before undergoing emergency surgery.

He had no access to specialised doctors or treatment due to the overwhelming number of casualties requiring immediate attention.

Long before he was ready to move, the entire hospital had to be evacuated. He was placed on a wooden cart for about 10 kilometres all the way to Khan Younis. 

“Before the Israeli invasion of Rafah, life was very difficult but still livable,” said Ahmed. “Now it is unbearable.”

“It’s a miracle I was able to make it to Al-Mawasi in Khan Younis,” he said.

Broken spirits

Ahmed is one of the lucky ones who was only displaced three times. Most other IDPs fleeing Rafah were displaced an average of six times in the past seven months.

“I lost everything,” Dr Sami (not his real name) told The New Arab. “My home, my dignity, my savings, my whole being.” Dr Sami preferred to remain anonymous and refused to have his picture taken because, as he said, he could not tolerate the “humiliation” of appearing in this state in front of his students.

The 49-year-old parasitology professor at Gaza’s Islamic University is married with three children, the eldest 15. This was the eighth time he has been displaced: from north Gaza to west Gaza, then to east Khan Younis, to west Khan Younis, to Rafah and now he is back in Khan Younis.

With a hammer and nails, he mustered whatever was left of his strength to build a wooden hut to protect his family from the heat and rain.

His hair was dishevelled, his eyes were bulging and he said he lost 27 kilogrammes of his weight. 

“In East Khan Younis, I shared a house with 24 other families,” he said. 

At one point as he headed south from west Gaza to east Khan Younis, he was stopped by Israeli occupation forces, stripped to his underwear, robbed of his money and personal belongings, and left to walk for four kilometres, amid relentless bombing, with no food or water. 

“I’m lucky to have this wheelbarrow to help me carry what little remains of my life,” Dr Sami said, tossing a broken wooden plank into a small fire. 

This article is published in collaboration with Egab

Motaz Al-Hallaq is a freelance journalist, based in Gaza

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