By Liam Stack
Tens of thousands of people in the Gaza Strip have been fleeing to areas west and south of the embattled city of Khan Younis, including to the nearby southern border town of Rafah, where an airstrike Wednesday brought new bloodshed and chaos to an area overflowing with people displaced by the war.
The strike underscored the peril faced by Palestinians who have left their homes for ever-shrinking patches of land as the Israeli military continues its campaign against Hamas.
Many people have fled Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city, since Israel called on Sunday for civilians to evacuate an area of the city that is home to more than 620,000 people, specifying Rafah as one possible alternative. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Israeli forces were fighting close-quarter battles in the city in the hunt for Hamas’ leaders.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a video posted Wednesday on the X social media platform, referred to Yehia Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, saying, “Our forces are encircling Sinwar’s house. He can escape, but it is only a matter of time until we reach him.”
Shortly after, Israel’s chief military spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, specified that Sinwar’s house was in “the Khan Younis region” and said, “Our mission is to find, to locate him, together with more of Hamas’ leadership, and kill them.”
The strike in Rafah came soon after the United Nations expressed alarm at the conditions there, saying that the city’s shelters were far beyond capacity and that displaced people were forced to sleep in the street or in empty lots and other abandoned areas.
Footage posted online by Palestine Television, a channel run by the Palestinian Authority, a rival to Hamas, showed rescuers with flashlights searching the rubble of a building, and injured children being treated in a hospital. The channel reported that 18 people had been killed.
The U.N. said that as of Tuesday night, Rafah was the only area in Gaza where any humanitarian aid had been distributed, because the collapse of the seven-day truce last Friday had largely severed the rest of the Gaza Strip from the border crossing.
Israel had been urging civilians to relocate to Rafah or to Al-Mawasi, an agricultural area near the Mediterranean Sea. But strikes have also continued in Al-Mawasi, and Palestinians and aid groups say that Al-Mawasi, in particular, does not have the infrastructure necessary to ease the crisis.
“Under international humanitarian law, the place where you evacuate people to must, by law have sufficient resources for their survival — medical facilities, food and water,” said James Elder, a spokesperson for the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“That is absolutely not the case,” he went on. “They are these patches of barren land, they are streets or corners or any space in a neighborhood, half-built buildings. The common thing they have is no water, no facilities, no shelter from cold and rain and particularly no sanitation.”
Although the U.N. was able to distribute hundreds of tents in Rafah, desperate people who arrived in Al-Mawasi found little more than an open-air area, said Yousef Hammash, an employee of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He said people scrounged to find supplies to build rickety improvised shelters to protect themselves and their families from the elements, fearful of the approach of winter.
“Thousands of people are building tents made of wood and plastic,” said Hammash, who fled Khan Younis with his family. “It doesn’t give any kind of protection but it gives them a sense of safety.”
No aid had arrived in Khan Younis and the surrounding area because of the fighting there between Israel and Hamas, the U.N. said, while areas immediately to the north of the city had been cut off because of Israeli restrictions of movement on the main roads. It said all access to northern Gaza, including Gaza City, came to an end when the truce collapsed.
Israeli commanders have described house-to-house gunbattles over the past two days with Hamas fighters in Khan Younis, in some of the heaviest fighting of the 2-month-old war. A military spokesperson, Avichay Adraee, on Wednesday warned civilians not to approach Salah al-Din Road, the main highway that connects Khan Younis to northern Gaza, calling it “a battlefield” and “extremely dangerous.”
People attempting to head north to seek refuge should instead use the main coastal road, he said in a post on social media, although it was unclear whether many people would do so given the intense bombardment — or how many could see the information given communications disruptions in Gaza.
Satellite imagery captured Wednesday and analyzed by the New York Times shows dozens of tanks on either side of the Salah al-Din Road north of Khan Younis, as well as to the east of the city.
The Israeli military said its forces were also on the ground “in the heart of Jabalia” and “in the heart of Shuja’iyya,” two residential areas in northern Gaza, which has been largely depopulated as people flee south.
A major hospital in Khan Younis, Nasser Hospital, has run out of space and supplies to treat all the injured people arriving in its emergency room, said Dr. Mohammad Abu Moussa, a radiologist. Patients now filled the floors of the hospital, and medical staff rushed from one patient to the next, crouching over them to apply little more than first aid, he said.
“There are no words to describe what the situation is really like, the wounded come in the dozens and it’s impossible for us to treat all these victims,” Abu Moussa said. “It’s not only that we can’t treat them; we can’t even diagnose them.”
Conditions in the area are so dangerous that medical workers could not reach the hospital Wednesday, said Amber Alayyan, deputy program manager for the Palestinian territories for the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders.
“The Gaza Strip is the most dangerous place for a health care worker in the world today,” she said.