'Pressure cooker of despair': Gaza war enters fifth month as Rafah assault continues

A Gazan resident said Palestinians would soon have to choose between getting killed or 'climbing the walls into Egypt'

People mourn as they arrive to collect the bodies of deceased friends and relatives in Rafah. Getty Images
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As Israel's war on Gaza enters its fifth month, options are running out fast for desolate civilians who have left their homes, buried loved ones and endured cold, hunger, disease, and a shortage of aid.

About half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million people have been forced to flee to Rafah, which the UN has described as a “pressure cooker of despair” after Israel had first called it a safe zone.

But there is no place left for Gazans to flee to as Israel's attacks go further south, with one resident saying there will soon be a choice between getting killed or “climbing the walls into Egypt”.

On Monday, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the military “will reach places where we have not yet fought … right up to the last Hamas bastion, which is Rafah”.

Retired US Lieutenant General and former co-ordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority Mark Shwartz told The National that there is one “responsible” solution that the Israeli army could provide.

“The only option is the responsible escort and evacuation of civilians to the coast,” he said.

The army cannot allow civilians to go back to Khan Younis or Gaza city – both of which have seen intense destruction – as there is no provision for shelter, food, water or sanitation, Lt Gen Schwartz said.

“That's the most realistic thing to do, rather than staying in place, unless civilians can be assured their safety – which to date hasn't happened.”

Lt Gen Schwartz said he expects the Israeli operation in Rafah targeting Hamas leaders to last at least “between two to four weeks”.

He added that the logistics of moving more than one million Gazans out of Rafah to a place where they can be provided necessities are “insurmountable”.

“Because of that, a certain number are going to have to stay in place. How do you make that decision?”

Another issue Gazans face, despite the Israeli army claiming that it has been warning civilians before they strike an area, is that many people have been left homeless as a result of the destruction caused by Israel's military operations.

“The IDF are going to have to change the method they're operating in, for a more reliant one of ground forces,” Lt Gen Schwartz said, opting for fewer strikes through the air or long-range weapons and in favour of “ground forces for searching and clearing Rafah”.

He added that Gazans could be forced to be pushed out of Gaza itself and into Egypt, which would set a “dangerous precedent”.

Hindered aid

On Monday, the UN said that an aid convoy carrying food was attacked while waiting to head to the northern part of the enclave.

The World Health Organisation had earlier said that it carried out three of 15 planned missions to the north in January, due to “impassable routes, one postponed and eight denied”.

“Lack of safety guarantees and humanitarian corridors in Gaza are making it increasingly challenging to safely and rapidly carry out humanitarian operations,” WHO representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Rick Peeperkorn said.

“Lack of sustained access to hospitals could dismantle the health system.”

Despite the availability of some figures on the scale of death, destruction and suffering caused by the war in Gaza, the reality remains much more stark.

One paramedic who had been repeatedly displaced and witnessed much of the devastation first-hand told The National that “death would be simpler than living this reality”.

Updated: February 07, 2024, 7:23 AM