When the flames of war are blazing in Gaza!

Israeli PM Netanyahu has vowed to push ahead, saying a ground invasion of the southern city is necessary to take down Hamas.

by Anwar A. Khan

A complete catastrophe, the whole Rafah is affected by the irremediable tragedy. Gaza aid groups have been compelled to brace for Israeli invasion of Rafah.

For the 18-year-old Nadine from the al-Nasr neighbourhood in central Gaza, writing poetry is an escape valve during times of war. “Two years ago, I found that I am really into poetry,” she explains. “After that realisation, everything I encounter in my life I document on paper; my tears, and shouts form my poems. Just like that, writing poetry becomes an escape for me – a world of my own, far away from the world I live in.” She writes even when “the flames of war are blazing.”

People wait for food relief in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah on March 14, 2024. (Photo by Khaled Omar/Xinhua)

During the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza, she wrote this:

“There, on the other side,

time changes, hours pass, and it gets darker,

the sky takes off its dim dress, then the morning arrives,

but here where I live, and breathe, life wears its black dress constantly,

to mourn the labour of my land,

which took a long time.

Here, the hanging clock, in my room is broken,

not only this one, everyone’s clock is broken here,

my mother keeps saying:

everyone is waiting for the elixir,

we’ve had it with the grief and agony.

In this holy land we sleep and wake up

on the sound of bombing and shooting

so, the first light of day rises in the evening,

lighting up the sky with the blood of martyrs,

here death sleeps not far from us.

We all walk towards freedom, towards hope,

we walk on the shattered glass of our broken windows,

we walk on stones that once were a house,

carrying stories and secrets,

we walk with the screams of children,

and the groans of mothers pulsating over and over in our ears.”

As Israel continues to threaten a full-scale assault on Rafah in southern Gaza, local, regional, and international aid groups have been scrambling to try to prepare to respond to the catastrophic humanitarian impact a ground invasion is expected to have. Facing a severe scarcity of supplies and resources, people involved in the effort say whatever preparations they are able to make will undoubtedly fall far short of the needs.

“We’re taking the Israel threats very seriously, and are acting accordingly,” Dr Bashar Murad, executive director of the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza, told the media outlets. “We’ve seen what the Israeli military is capable of doing in Gaza City, in the north of Gaza, and in Khan Younis. This could all be replicated in Rafah too.”

The nearby coastal region of al-Mawasi which Israel unilaterally declared a ‘safe zone’ earlier in the war, although it has continued to bomb and kill civilians in the area – has become a staging ground for these efforts. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have already relocated to al-Mawasi from all over Gaza. Preparing for a new influx from Rafah, aid groups have been building new displacement camps, emergency medical clinics, food warehouses, and other humanitarian infrastructure in the area.

Israel, however, is continuing to obstruct the delivery of aid to Gaza and hamper humanitarian activities including by killing an unprecedented number of aid workers inside the enclave. A sparsely populated agricultural area before the war, al-Mawasi also lacks basic infrastructure, such as paved roads, water supply lines, electricity, and sanitation facilities. These limitations are making it difficult for aid groups to find suitable locations to establish facilities and enough supplies to stock them.

Still, the increasing number of medical clinics, community kitchens, aid distribution points, warehouses, and temporary field offices for local and international aid groups was clearly visible there. Many facilities are housed in tents and sheds, while seaside vacation homes and vegetable and poultry farms have been repurposed into aid warehouses and communal kitchens.

“All these efforts will amount to nothing in the case of an Israeli invasion of Rafah,” Dawoud al-Astal, a relief activist and supervisor at the local Al-Fajr Youth Association, which has been providing support to displaced people in al-Mawasi, told the media outlets.

Much-needed humanitarian work may come to a halt altogether because it is unclear how aid will reach Gaza if the two main border crossings used to bring aid in – both in Rafah – are cut off by an invasion, the Red Crescent’s Murad added.

With a population of around 275,000 before the war, Rafah is the last major urban area in Gaza that is yet to see a large-scale Israeli ground offensive. Around 1.4 million people forcibly displaced from their homes in other parts of Gaza have taken shelter in and around the city. Aid groups are expecting many of these people to flood into al-Mawasi if and when an Israeli invasion of Rafah begins.

Israeli PM Netanyahu has vowed to push ahead, saying a ground invasion of the southern city is necessary to take down Hamas. The Palestinian political and militant group, which has governed Gaza since 2007, is responsible for launching the deadly 7 October attacks into Israel that precipitated the current war.

Six months into Israel’s military campaign, 1.1 million people are facing imminent, man-made famine in Gaza, over 34,000 have been killed, nearly two million have been forcibly displaced, and the entire population is reliant on an insufficient supply of humanitarian aid.

Israel recently pledged to increase humanitarian access after killing seven staff from the NGO World Central Kitchen in drone strikes. Whether that will happen, and how far it will go towards addressing the immense needs in Gaza, remain to be seen. Aid leaders have repeatedly said an immediate ceasefire is needed to avert further catastrophe in the enclave.

Outside of Rafah, much of the rest of Gaza has been left in ruins, and aid access is even more restricted in the north of Gaza than it is in the south. These factors would make it difficult for people fleeing an Israeli assault on Rafah to return to homes elsewhere in Gaza – many of which have been destroyed – or to seek shelter in other parts of the enclave.

Al-Mawasi – a narrow strip of territory along the sea less than one kilometre wide in some places, extending from the north of Rafah to the south of Deir al-Balah is a last resort. One of the top priorities of aid groups has been to try to build some healthcare capacity in the area to try to compensate for the devastation of Gaza’s medical sector.

“An Israeli invasion of Rafah will result in a complete catastrophe to the healthcare system, of which only the small hospitals are operational at a capacity of 270%,” said Murad, from the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Already, 26 out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals have been knocked out of service by Israel’s military campaign. The 10 remaining hospitals (four in the north and six in the south) are only partially functional.

The number of displaced people already in al-Mawasi is “over and above the limited resources and infrastructure the area has had since before the war”, Hany Nabil, a relief volunteer and activist from al-Mawasi, told. “This is an area that has no clean water, no infrastructure, and no necessary resources which relief work requires.”

Nabil has been working to try to provide fuel, medication, shelter, and other forms of support to people in al-Mawasi. Those supplies are located in Rafah and have to be transported to the area. An Israeli assault on the city would cut that crucial lifeline, Nabil said.

“Rafah is where the medicine and fuel warehouses and storage facilities are, and it’s where foreign medical teams arrived to support the healthcare system and where the real infrastructure is,” he explained.

“If a mass displacement takes place, an immense and sophisticated level of coordination and massive resources, along with international support, will be needed and is incredibly lacking at the current stage,” Nabil, an aid worker said.

International aid groups have been similarly critical of Israel’s baneful plan of obstructing the aid workers to work fitfully to support the destitute people at Rafah. Even if Palestine isn’t your national or political issue, don’t forget that it is a human issue in the first place.

Anwar A. Khan is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs