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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel will expand civilian ‘safe zone’ if it invades crowded city in Gaza, official says

In satellite images provided by Planet Labs, an image from April 21 shows tent encampments occupying land that had been empty in mid-January in a beachside area known as Al-Mawasi in the Gaza Strip. (Planet Labs via The New York Times)

By Adam Rasgon

An Israeli military official has said that if an invasion were to begin in Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza Strip where 1 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering, an Israeli-designated “humanitarian zone” along the coast would be expanded to take in more civilians.

The comments are among the first indications of the Israeli military’s plans for civilians in case of a major ground maneuver in Rafah, which the Biden administration has urged Israel to forgo because of the risks it would pose to displaced Palestinians.

Palestinians who have sought shelter in Rafah have been bracing for an Israeli incursion for months, huddling in crowded tents, schools and apartments. Many have followed Israeli calls to evacuate only to encounter bombardment in those places, too.

Israeli officials have repeatedly said that the army will enter Rafah to fight Hamas battalions there, bucking international pressure to back off any operation.

In the case of an invasion, Israel would tell Palestinians to go to the enlarged “humanitarian zone,” a narrow strip of beachside land known as Muwasi, and other unidentified areas in Gaza, said the military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, on Monday evening.

It was unclear how much Israel would expand Muwasi, but the area is already packed with people. Satellite imagery from Planet Labs revealed a significant increase in the number of people there over the last few months: An aerial image from Sunday shows tent encampments occupying land that had been empty in mid-January.

Sandra Rasheed, director of the Jerusalem office of Anera, a relief group, said Israel hadn’t told it of an imminent operation in Rafah, but the organization had found a shelter for its staff members and their families to relocate to in Muwasi. United Nations officials also said they hadn’t been informed by Israel of an impending invasion.

The western edge of Rafah’s built-up area is near Muwasi’s southern border and around 2 1/2 miles from its center.

Israel’s military first said Gaza’s residents should move to Muwasi in mid-October. It reiterated that demand in December when it issued evacuation orders for the nearby city of Khan Younis and told residents to head to Muwasi and some areas in Rafah.

Satellite imagery also appeared to show a new cluster of hundreds of tents being built west of Khan Younis. Imagery taken Thursday showed more than 100 tents in the area, while imagery captured Sunday showed more than 400 in the complex.

Israel has come under increasing international pressure to allow more aid to enter Gaza. The official did not say how much more aid would be brought to Muwasi. Mohammed al-Hassi, 48, a medic sheltering in Muwasi, said the area was overflowing with displaced people and worried another influx would make conditions worse.

“There aren’t enough bathrooms, there isn’t enough clean water, and there isn’t enough space,” he said. “The existing infrastructure can barely handle the number of people already here.”

Rafah is on the border with Egypt, but with Egypt allowing hardly any Palestinians from Gaza to enter, there are few clear options for moving large numbers of civilians out of the city. Earlier this month, Jamie McGoldrick, then a senior U.N. humanitarian official in Jerusalem, said that an Israeli invasion of Rafah could force hundreds of thousands of people to try to flee for points north, a risky journey across bombed-out roads littered with unexploded ordnance.

The Biden administration has repeatedly urged Israel to hold off on a major military assault on Rafah, including in a virtual meeting last week. During that meeting, the American side evaluated options for the attack presented by Israel but was not convinced that those plans met President Joe Biden’s insistence that any operation be calibrated to minimize civilian casualties, according to a White House statement.

Israel has frequently encouraged Palestinians to seek shelter in Muwasi, but the area has been struck by the Israeli army several times, according to Palestinians in the area. Israel has accused militants of firing rockets from Muwasi.

“There’s no safe place,” al-Hassi said. “I’m someone with no hostility toward Israel or anyone in the world, but I can’t guarantee that the building, the land or the car I’m next to won’t be targeted.”

In Rafah, Rajab al-Sindawi, a secondhand clothing salesperson who fled there from Gaza City in the north, said he was feeling anxious as he, his wife and seven children squeezed into a small tent on a sidewalk.

“The people are all waiting to hear how they will move us,” he said.

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