Why Rafah is important and how will Israel's assault change the war?

Israel claims it has set up a safe zone for civilians

An aerial view of Rafah, from where the Israeli army has ordered about 100,000 Palestinians to leave. Photo: Planet Labs PBC via AP
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Israel has demanded that more than 100,000 Gazan civilians in eastern Rafah, most of them taking shelter in tents, evacuate and head elsewhere as it began a military incursion into the city on Monday.

More than 1.5 million of Gaza's 2.1 million population have sought refuge in Rafah as Israel carried out deadly and devastating attacks in northern and central Gaza, leaving little for civilians to go back to should they decide to return north.

Where Rafah's is located

Crucially, Rafah is on the border with Egypt. The Rafah border crossing has long been Palestinians' only way out, thought this has become much harder since the current wear broke out.

"Before the war, we barely needed anything to get out of Gaza. We could've gone any time," Abu Jamal, who was displaced from Jabalia in northern Gaza and is now in Rafah, told The National.

Reports emerged earlier that Egypt had closed the Rafah border crossing but hours later, Cairo denied such a measure had been taken.

Why medics are being removed

Medical staff at the European Hospital in Khan Younis, near Rafah, have been told to leave the premises. Several foreign teams were on hand to assist with the overwhelming number of casualties.

Dr Majed Jaber has been volunteering both there and at Al Helal Emirati Maternity Hospital.

"We were left to deal with emergency rooms by ourselves," he said. "We haven't seen our colleagues since but we were told they were prevented from coming back."

Dr Jaber said this has put further strain on already stretched hospitals that are receiving more casualties than they can handle.

Many doctors like himself have gone to check on their families to ensure that they are safe. Dr Jaber said he is making arrangements, such as bringing supplies and tents to ensure his family can leave Rafah safely.

He is one of a dwindling number of medical professionals who plan on remaining in Rafah to provide medical assistance.

The European Hospital is only a few kilometres from the Sufa crossing, which is "heavily militarised", Dr Jaber said.

"Right now there are no safe vehicles to take us there, even if we want to go and save patients."

What Israel could achieve

In Rafah, Israel claims the so-called Philadelphi Route, an underground passage linking from Gaza to Egypt's Sinai, is being used to smuggle "munitions, money and weapons", two analysts told The National.

Former Israeli hostage negotiator Gershon Baskin said that should Israel launch an incursion into Rafah, a deal between the warring parties would be effectively off the table.

The situation would have "devastating and catastrophic" humanitarian impacts on the people of Gaza, he said.

"Israel has built a tent city, a so-called safe zone, but people have been killed in safe zones in this war. There is no safe zone in Gaza," he said.

Mr Baskin argued that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "does not want to end the war".

How the situation affects the overall war

Mr Baskin believes Hamas should have accepted Israel's most recent version of the ceasefire deal, which did not promise an end to the war but could have resulted in an extendable ceasefire.

On Sunday, Hamas rockets fired near the Karam Abu Salem border crossing in Gaza killed three Israeli soldiers.

Israeli strikes in return on Rafah have killed at least 12 people, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. Subsequent Israeli attacks on Rafah overnight have killed more than 50 people.

"This has given a pretext to the Israeli government to face the public to fire up a war in Rafah. We have an irresponsible government in Israel and irresponsible leadership in Gaza who don't care about the welfare of people."

Updated: May 07, 2024, 10:41 AM