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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

'Unlawful and Catastrophic': IDF Begins Forced Evacuation of Rafah

The head of one humanitarian group called the Israeli military's directives "a serious violation of international law."

Smoke from an Israeli attack on Rafah, May 6 -- image via X

By Jake Johnson, Common Dreams

Israel's army on Monday ordered roughly 100,000 people living in eastern Rafah to evacuate ahead of an imminent military assault on the area, terrifying families who have been forcibly displaced to the southern Gaza city in recent months and intensifying warnings of a bloodbath.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) dropped leaflets over Rafah ordering some of its 1.4 million residents to move to a strip along Gaza's coast, a signal that a long-feared ground assault on the overcrowded city is set to begin in the face of vocal opposition from the international community and humanitarian organizations.

The U.S., Israel's top arms supplier, has said it would oppose a Rafah assault without a credible plan to evacuate civilians from the city. Humanitarian groups and analysts have said such a plan is impossible because there is no genuinely safe place for Gazans to go. Israeli forces have repeatedly attacked so-called "safe zones" and designated routes Palestinians have used to flee in compliance with past IDF orders.

"Israel's military offensive in Rafah could lead to the deadliest phase of this conflict, inflicting horrific suffering on approximately 1.4 million displaced civilians in the area," said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. "The relocation orders issued by Israel today to thousands of Gazans, directing them to move to Al-Mawasi, are beyond alarming. The area is already overstretched and devoid of vital services. It lacks the capacity to house the number of people currently seeking refuge in Rafah, with no assurances of safety, proper accommodation, or return once hostilities end for those forced to relocate."

"The absence of these fundamental guarantees of safety and return, as required by international humanitarian law, qualifies Israel's relocation directives as forcible transfer, amounting to a serious violation of international law," Egeland said. "Any Israeli military operation in Rafah—which has become the largest cluster of displacement camps in the world—will cause potential mass atrocities."

Israel reportedly notified the U.S. of the evacuation orders overnight, and CIA Director William Burns is set to arrive in Israel on Monday to discuss the operation in Rafah, a city along Gaza's border with Egypt that has become a critical point of entry for humanitarian aid. The new evacuation orders, expected to be just the first round of directives, include Rafah's largest medical facility.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the main relief agency in Gaza, said in response to the IDF's orders that it would not leave Rafah.

"An Israeli offensive in Rafah would mean more civilian suffering and deaths. The consequences would be devastating for 1.4 million people," the organization wrote in a social media post. "UNRWA is not evacuating: The agency will maintain a presence in Rafah as long as possible and will continue providing lifesaving aid to people."

The far-right Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been threatening a ground invasion of Rafah for months, characterizing the city as Hamas' last major stronghold. Avichay Adraee, an IDF lieutenant colonel, said Monday that the Israeli military would use "extreme force" in the evacuation areas and warned that "anyone who is close to terrorist organizations puts his life and the life of his family at risk."

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), around 600,000 children are currently sheltering in the city, including many who have been displaced multiple times since Israel's assault began in October following a Hamas-led attack.

"More than 200 days of war have taken an unimaginable toll on the lives of children," Catherine Russell, UNICEF's executive director, said Monday. "Rafah is now a city of children, who have nowhere safe to go in Gaza. If large-scale military operations start, not only will children be at risk from the violence, but also from chaos and panic, and at a time where their physical and mental states are already weakened.”

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, called the IDF's evacuation push in Rafah "unlawful and catastrophic."

"There's nowhere safe to go in Gaza," Shakir added. "The international community should act to prevent further atrocities."

The IDF began issuing its evacuation orders in Rafah a day after the Netanyahu government voted to shut down Al Jazeera's operations in the country, a brazen attack on press freedom.

"The fact that Israel banned Al Jazeera hours before beginning its assault on Rafah is not a coincidence," said author and Middle East analyst Assal Rad. "After everything we’ve seen in the last seven months, imagine what they'll do when they think no one is watching."

Jake Johnson is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams.

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