Few Options for Gazans as Israel Enters Rafah

In Brief

Few Options for Gazans as Israel Enters Rafah

An impending Israeli ground invasion of Rafah could threaten more than a million civilians seeking refuge in the city and further restrict humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

On May 7, Israel’s military said that it had seized control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt. Israeli tanks had entered the area in what they called a “limited” operation. However, it could represent the start of a ground campaign against Hamas battalions in the city of Rafah, part of a broader effort to dismantle the militant group entirely. But how Israel plans to achieve its goals while protecting Palestinian civilians is still unclear.

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Approximately 1.4 million people, more than half of Gaza’s population, have been sheltering in Rafah as hostilities continue between Israel and Hamas more than seven months after the outbreak of the war. Most live in makeshift shelters and tents and lack access to clean drinking water, sufficient food, and medical supplies. 

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Prior to the incursion, the Israeli military ordered tens of thousands of civilians in Rafah to evacuate, reportedly telling them to head to humanitarian zones near the cities of al-Mawasi and Khan Younis. Aid organizations say al-Mawasi is overcrowded and unprepared to accept tens of thousands of refugees who might seek shelter there.

It is unclear how Palestinians can leave Gaza following the shutdown of the Rafah crossing; neighboring countries such as Egypt and Jordan are ill-equipped to handle inflows of refugees given their own large refugee populations and economic troubles. (The Egyptian government has said it will not accept Palestinian refugees from Gaza.)

Israel said it launched the takeover and subsequent closure of the Rafah border crossing after receiving intelligence that the crossing was being used for terrorist purposes by Hamas. The closure complicates an already dire humanitarian situation by cutting off a critical route that has been used for the delivery of aid and fuel into the besieged enclave. The smaller Erez crossing, in northern Gaza, reportedly continues to operate.

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Since March, the United States and its allies have airdropped emergency aid into Gaza to address the growing hunger crisis there, but the United Nations and various humanitarian groups say the current level of aid is still insufficient to meet the needs of Gaza’s population. Separately, the United States is constructing a floating pier several miles off Gaza’s coast on the Mediterranean Sea to help increase deliveries of humanitarian aid to the enclave. Other aid delivery attempts have been halted.

Israel’s incursion into Rafah comes after Hamas accepted a cease-fire proposal announced by Egypt and Qatar in May. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the proposal was “very far from Israel’s vital demands,” but that officials would continue negotiations. In the midst of these negotiations, a full-scale invasion of Rafah remains possible, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that this would be a “strategic mistake, a political calamity, and a humanitarian nightmare.”

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Recommended Resources

CFR World101 explores the history behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At this CFR meeting, experts discuss how to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

For Foreign Affairs, CFR Senior Fellow Elliott Abrams argues that Israel can win in Gaza while deterring Iran.

The Center for Preventive Action tracks the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Think Global Health, CFR’s Simone Lipkind explains how Gaza’s food crisis began long before the current war.

Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow created the graphics for this In Brief.

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