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UNICEF Warns Area Israel Pushing Rafah Residents to Is 'Not Safe'

"It is a narrow strip of beach on the coast that lacks the basic infrastructure—like toilets and running water—needed to sustain the population," said the agency chief.

Resident of Rafah fleeing -- image via the UN on X


By Jessica Corbett, Common Dreams


As Israel's tanks and warplanes continued attacking eastern Rafah on Thursday amid fears of a full-scale invasion, United Nations leaders warned that the area to which Israeli forces are directing Palestinians in the southern Gaza Strip city is unsafe.


The Israel Defense Forces this week has circulated a map and claimed that "the IDF has expanded the humanitarian area in Al-Mawasi to accommodate the increased levels of aid flowing into Gaza. This expanded humanitarian area includes field hospitals, tents, and increased amounts of food, water, medication, and additional supplies."


However, in an interview published Wednesday, Tess Ingram of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said that "the area that they're being directed to evacuate to is not safe. It's not safe because there aren't the services there to meet their basic needs, water, toilets, shelter."


"But it's also not safe because we know that that area has been subject to strikes despite being a so-called safe zone. So we're really concerned about that impact of a ground offensive on one of the most densely populated areas in the world," she told The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill.


Rafah was home to about a quarter-million people before October 7, but since Israel launched what the International Court of Justice has called a "plausibly" genocidal assault on Gaza—killing at least 34,904 Palestinians and wounding another 78,514 as of Thursday—the city's population has swelled to over 1.4 million.


UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said last week that a major military operation against the crowded city "would bring catastrophe on top of catastrophe" for the young people there, explaining that "nearly all of the some 600,000 children now crammed into Rafah are either injured, sick, malnourished, traumatized, or living with disabilities."


Noting that "many of them have been displaced multiple times already," Ingram, who recently returned from Gaza, similarly told Scahill that "they're exhausted, traumatized, sick, hungry, and their ability to safely evacuate is limited."


Despite warnings from humanitarian leaders and the U.S. government—which has continued to arm the IDF throughout the war—Israeli forces attacked Rafah this week and seized control of the border crossing with Egypt, further restricting aid delivery.


U.S. President Joe Biden previously called attacking Rafah a "red line." While criticizing the IDF assault on the city Wednesday, the American leader was accused of "moving the goal post" because he merely threatened to cut off arms if Israel pursued a major invasion, rather than stopping the flow of arms immediately.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear on Thursday that he has no intention of backing down, saying in a video message in Hebrew that "if we are forced to stand alone, we will stand alone."


Russell said in a statement Thursday that "the intensification of military operations in the Rafah area and the closure of key border crossings into southern Gaza have severed our access to fuel, threatening to grind humanitarian operations to a halt."


According to the UNICEF chief:


If the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings are not reopened to fuel and humanitarian supplies, the consequences will be felt almost immediately: Life support services for premature babies will lose power; children and families will become dehydrated or consume dangerous water; sewage will overflow and spread disease further. Simply put, lost time will soon become lost lives.
I strongly urge the relevant authorities to provide humanitarian actors with actionable measures and concrete assurances to facilitate safe and secure movement of humanitarian cargo, via all routes, into and within the Gaza Strip.

"I am also deeply concerned about the movement of civilians in Gaza to unsafe areas," Russell continued. "In response to evacuation orders in eastern Rafah, at least 80,000 people have reportedly fled the area, with many seeking shelter in Al-Mawasi and among the ruins of Khan Younis. We have been warning for months that Al-Mawasi is not a safe option. It is a narrow strip of beach on the coast that lacks the basic infrastructure—like toilets and running water—needed to sustain the population."


Plus, as Scott Anderson, deputy director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, told Politico on Wednesday, "there's already 450,000 people in that general area. It is crowded."


Anderson also warned about dwindling supplies, saying that "we're down to no fuel. We're basically out. We've kept enough to meet the minimum security standards we have to meet for the U.N. so we can continue to stay here. But we're down to that level. Some hospitals will start shutting down their generators in three days if we don't get fuel in."


Martin Griffiths, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, stressed in a Thursday statement that "civilians must be protected and have their basic needs met, whether they move or stay."


While warning that "Israel's latest evacuation orders and their ground operations will bring more death and displacement," Griffiths also said that "we remain committed to providing aid to people, regardless of where they are."


"The decisions that are made today and their consequences in human suffering will be remembered by the generation that follows us," he concluded. "Let us be ready for their reproaches."


Jessica Corbett is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams.


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