Some Palestinians leave Rafah refuge, fearing Israeli assault

By Mohammad Salem

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Nahla Jarwan fled her home in the central Gaza Strip to seek refuge in Rafah - like more than 1 million other Palestinians escaping Israel's military offensive.

Now, as Israeli shells crash into Rafah, Jarwan said she is going back to an area she fled, even though nowhere is safe.

She is one of dozens of people who residents said were leaving Rafah on Tuesday after Israeli shelling and air strikes in recent days.

"I fled Al-Maghazi, came to Rafah, and here I am, returning to Al-Maghazi," said Jarwan, referring to the refugee camp from which she fled earlier in the conflict.

"Last night in Rafah was very tough. We're going back to Al-Maghazi out of fear - displaced from one area to another; hopefully Al-Maghazi area would safe, God willing."

"Wherever we go, there is no safety," she said.

Describing Rafah as Hamas' "last bastion", Israel plans to expand its offensive there to try to eradicate the group behind the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and over 250 abducted, according to Israeli tallies.

For Palestinians, Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip has provided sanctuary from an Israeli offensive which has killed more than 28,000 people, according to health authorities in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

UNRWA, a U.N. agency which provides Palestinians with aid and essential services, says there are nearly 1.5 million people in Rafah, six times the population compared to before Oct. 7.

Israeli tanks shelled the eastern sector of Rafah city overnight, residents reported, though the anticipated ground offensive did not appear to have started.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office has said it has ordered the army to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah.


Sitting in a car crammed with possessions ready to depart, Jarwan said she hoped for a quick end to the war.

"We're tired of fleeing from one city to another," she said. "I'm hoping the world stands with us and looks at us with a kind, merciful eye."

Describing Palestinian victims as martyrs, she said: "We're tired - we're always crying. Martyrs, shelling, destruction, death, starvation, thirst, there is no food."

U.S. President Joe Biden has told Netanyahu that Israel should not proceed with an operation in Rafah without a plan to ensure the safety of people sheltering there.

Aid officials and foreign governments say there is nowhere for them to go. Egypt has said it will not allow an exodus of Palestinian refugees to cross into its territory.

Momen Shbair said he would return to Khan Younis, about eight km (five miles) away, after what he also described as a tough night in Rafah.

"We're lost. We don't know where to go. I pray that the whole world pressures Israel to end the war," he said, driving a donkey cart along a sand road by the sea.

"We're tired (of going) from one place to another."

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Timothy Heritage)