Gazans seek safety in Rafah cemetery but brace for Israeli assault

More than one million Palestinians have taken refuge in Gaza's southernmost city

Displaced Palestinians in a makeshift camp beside the Tal Al Sultan cemetery, west of Rafah. Bloomberg
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Displaced Gazans are seeking shelter in Rafah's Tal Al Sultan cemetery as they brace for an Israeli assault on the southern city.

"I came here because I believe this place could be the safest in all of the Gaza Strip, as there is no safe place in Gaza," Mahmoud Ammir, a displaced Palestinian from the Al Shatee camp west of Gaza city, told The National.

More than one million Palestinians are crammed into the southern city, having taken refuge there after fleeing their homes due to fighting elsewhere across the Gaza Strip.

They are now preparing for an expected Israeli ground assault on Rafah.

Mr Ammir said he was starting to lose hope after reports of the imminent Israeli operation in Rafah, which Israel claims is the last bastion of Hamas control after nearly five months of war.

Israeli War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz warned on Sunday that Israeli forces would launch a ground invasion of the city by the beginning of Ramadan, on March 10, unless Hamas releases the remaining hostages it holds.

His announcement came despite warnings from the EU and other international observers that any offensive in Rafah would produce a further humanitarian catastrophe. The city had a population of around 250,000 to 300,000 people before the war, but is now thought to be hosting more than half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million people.

Amid crowded conditions and the looming threat of an assault, Palestinians have sought safety inside the Tal Al Sultan cemetery, where they have erected tents to live in and tried to establish a semblance of normality amid heavy Israeli bombardment.

The cemetery, located west of Rafah, has hundreds of tombs, around which is now a makeshift camp comprised of dozens of tents.

Mr Ammir chose to move 18 members of his family from his home in northern Gaza after the Israeli army dropped leaflets asking residents to flee to the south.

He initially refused to leave but said he chose to move his family after his children were scared by Israeli bombardment of the area.

Mr Ammir told The National of his discomfort at staying in a cemetery.

"I feel there is no difference between us and those that are dead and buried in this cemetery, we are the same," he said.

"Can you imagine that we are sleeping next to dead people?" Mr Ammir said. "My children still don't understand that they are living besides dead people."

Mr Ammir and his family also have no access to electricity, food and water.

"I used to have a peaceful life, working all day and coming home to a roof over my head and a door I could close. But now, all we hope for is clean water to drink and something to eat to alleviate our starvation," he said.

However, he said the lack of buildings in the cemetery was reassuring, as it meant the Israeli military was less likely to target the area.

Mr Ammir used to own a grocery store in Al Shatee camp that covered his family's expenses.

Now living in the cemetery, he no longer has the security of a normal life and is worried about wild animals attacking his children. He called for the war to stop.

"I hope the world does something for us to stop the war. I hope for peace to take place, to stop the killing of people, and for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to stop," he said.

The war began when Hamas led an attack from Gaza against southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing around 250 hostages.

Israel's retaliatory campaign in Gaza has killed more than 29,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble. Israel claims Hamas fighters have hidden among civilians and used infrastructure such as hospitals as command bases, which the group denies.

Israel's initial military operation focused on Gaza city and northern Gaza, before moving on to target the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

Air strikes have hit targets throughout the crowded enclave, including in Rafah, but the city has not yet been the focus of a ground assault.

Last week, almost 100 people were killed in a single night when Israel launched air strikes on Rafah in support of an operation that rescued two Israeli hostages.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused calls for a ceasefire and rejected a proposed temporary truce that envisaged an exchange of the remaining Israeli hostages for Palestinian detainees.

Updated: February 19, 2024, 3:21 PM