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Conditions are “terrible” for relocating Gazans

As Israel's invasion of Rafah enters its third week, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the southern Gaza city have encountered squalid conditions in their new camps and shelters.

The lack of food, clean water and toilets makes the resettlement a particularly terrible experience, say residents of the Gaza Strip. And price gouging makes travel unaffordable for those who rely on transportation – including the elderly and the disabled.

“We are dealing with terrible circumstances,” said Khalil el-Halabi, a retired U.N. official in his 70s who left Rafah last week for Al-Mawasi, a beach area that Israel has designated a “humanitarian zone.”

“We don’t have what we need,” Mr. Halabi said. “We can barely find water.”

More than 800,000 people have left Rafah in the past two weeks, a UN official said on Monday. The Israeli military said the same day that more than 950,000 civilians had been relocated to the city since it issued expanded evacuation orders. A military spokesman said about 300,000 to 400,000 civilians still live there.

A satellite image from Maxar Technologies showing an area of ​​Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 4.Credit…Maxar Technologies, via Reuters
The same area on May 15th.Credit…Maxar Technologies, via Reuters

The latest wave of displacement in Gaza began on May 6, when Israel issued evacuation orders and launched military operations in eastern Rafah, on the border with Egypt. More than half of the enclave's civilians had sought refuge in the city – most of them after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza on multiple occasions.

Ali Jebril, 27, a wheelchair-bound basketball player, said he and his family paid $600 to have 35 people taken by bus from East Rafah to Khan Younis earlier this month.

Mr. Jebril, who said his wheelchair cannot move in the sandy beach areas where many have settled, has moved to a tent on the grounds of a hospital in Khan Younis.

“We are not living a life of dignity,” he said. “We are facing a catastrophe.”

The war, he said, made him feel like he had become a burden on society and he often asked others for help.

Since Israel's invasion of Rafah, once-overcrowded shelters and tent villages in the city have been largely emptied, Edem Wosornu, an official with the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council on Monday. People have moved to areas near Khan Younis and Deir al Balah and set up makeshift camps that lack sanitation, water, drainage or shelter, she said.

“We described it as a disaster, a nightmare, a hell on earth,” Ms. Wosornu said. “It’s all of that and worse.”

Since the war began in October, three-quarters of Gaza's population have been displaced, with many people moving four or five times, she said.

Israel sees the orders as a humanitarian step to protect civilians from further military action, which it says is necessary to eradicate Hamas militants in the southern Gaza Strip. But aid groups said the additional displacement is worsening an already dire humanitarian situation.

Waiting for water in a camp west of Deir al Balah in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday.Credit…Agence France Press – Getty Images

In its latest update, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs described people living in groups of 500 to 700 tents, many made of blankets, nylon or other available materials. Some tents were pitched on an unstable beach slope, with rubbish from higher ground rolling past the dwellings and into the sea, the report said.

Mr Halabi said food was available in markets, but his family had so little money that it was difficult to pay for it.

“After seven months of war, we hardly have anything left,” he said.

While more and more commercial vehicles have been entering the Gaza Strip recently, aid reaching the south through the Kerem Shalom and Rafah border crossings has almost come to a standstill. UNRWA, the main U.N. agency for Palestinian aid, said just 69 aid trucks entered the two border crossings in a 16-day period ending Tuesday – the lowest number since the early weeks of the war. And on Tuesday, UNRWA said it had suspended food distribution in Rafah from May 19. In a post on social media, it cited a lack of supplies and security, warning that closures and disruptions at two key border crossings in southern Gaza had blocked medical supplies from reaching hospitals in the past 10 days.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the main U.N. agency helping Palestinians, wrote in a social media post that any relocation carries risks and takes a heavy toll.

“Each time they are forced to leave behind the few belongings they have: mattresses, tents, cooking utensils and basic foodstuffs that they cannot carry or pay to transport,” he wrote. “Each time they have to start from scratch.”

Anna Harden

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