Rafah May Prove the Most Dire Moment in Israel’s War on Gaza

An invasion of Rafah would be the most dangerous stage of Israel’s genocide of Palestinians yet, causing death on a scale unseen even in these four months of sheer brutality.

Palestinians perform prayers at Al-Huda Mosque after it was heavily damaged by Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza, on February 14, 2024. (Belal Khaled / Anadolu via Getty Images)

On Sunday, while one hundred million Americans were watching the kickoff of the Super Bowl, Israel took the opportunity to unleash the next stage in its genocide of Palestinians. Air strikes over Rafah killed at least sixty-seven Palestinians, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered soldiers to prepare for a ground entry into the city.

Rafah, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, is the last refuge for nearly 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the ongoing Israeli genocide.

Since Israeli bombs began decimating Northern Gaza in October, Palestinians have been told to evacuate to the south. Rafah is as far south as anyone can go. With a ground invasion imminent, the Israeli government is calling for the population to “evacuate” — even though they have nowhere to evacuate to.

An Israeli invasion of Rafah would be the most dangerous stage of the genocide yet, causing death on a scale unseen even in these four months of sheer brutality.

After indiscriminately flattening Gaza and pushing Palestinians toward famine, now the Israeli military is seeking to remove the Palestinians from Gaza permanently, whether by displacement, disease, hunger, or execution. This is the next stage of genocide.

The Drive for Maximum Land, Minimum Palestinians

This onslaught, led by the Netanyahu government, represents the sharpest edge of the historic goal of Zionism: to control the maximum amount of Palestinian land with a minimum number of Palestinians on it. For the last four months, we have watched this logic play out in real time.

Beginning with relentless bombing in the north of Gaza, the Israeli military has forcibly displaced the majority of people throughout Gaza all the way to Rafah, forcing them from one “safe zone” to the next with air strikes and military assaults at their heels.

Anywhere can be a target: Israel’s flattening of hospitals, bakeries, schools, churches, mosques, universities, and countless homes is a crucial part of its genocidal strategy, killing Palestinians not only through bombing but by destroying the conditions for human life. On Saturday, CNN journalists taken on a tour by the Israeli army themselves described the scene in Khan Younis, a city in the south, as “devastation . . . beyond imagination.”

Unsurprisingly, this systematic annihilation of critical infrastructure has rendered much of Gaza “uninhabitable,” according to the UN. Palestinians who remain in the north are facing a total crisis: no humanitarian aid is able to reach them. More than a month ago, the World Food Programme warned that 93 percent of displaced Palestinian households lack adequate food.

Now, the entire population is at risk of starvation, with many actively in famine, and the spread of disease is rampant. Families in Gaza are now running out of even the animal and bird feed that they were forced to bake into bread. Many are forced to consume inedible things, like dirt, and clean water is incredibly scarce. Mohammad Jamal Abu Tour, a Palestinian living in Rafah, told CNN: “We keep hearing that in Gaza City [in the north] they can’t find clean water and that they are eating grass, they drink from the [saltwater] sea. God help them.”

Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers burn and destroy food warehouses in Gaza City — and proudly post videos to social media of them doing so.

Rafah Is Now the Most Densely Populated Place on Earth

The combination of relentless bombardment and unlivable conditions of hunger and disease have driven around 1.5 million Palestinians south to Rafah. Throughout the Israeli military’s four-month onslaught, it has categorized Rafah as a “safe zone” from the bombing, ordering Palestinians to evacuate there — turning Rafah into the most densely populated place on earth.

An aerial view of makeshift tents of Palestinian families seeking refuge, Rafah, Gaza, February 9, 2024. (Abed Zagout / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Aid workers are struggling to supply even basic medicine and halt the spread of disease, facing “unprecedented” density in the makeshift camps. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the major aid agency in Palestine, has made it clear that they do not have enough supplies to support even the basic needs of life for the Palestinians sheltering in Rafah.

“No one laughs, no one smiles,” described a student in Rafah. “It’s all darkness and pain.”

This is who Israel is at war with: people who are sick, cold, hungry, displaced from their homes, and grieving murdered family members. Forced into camps at the border, people in Rafah must spend most of their days searching for food, fuel, and basic supplies. The United States’ decision to cut aid to UNRWA has only exacerbated these horrors.

“We are praying to God that what happened in Gaza City does not happen in Rafah,” reported Mohammad Jamal Abu Tour. “If the same happens in Rafah, we will have no place to go.”

The Penultimate Stage of Genocide

Pinned up against the Egyptian border, Palestinians in Rafah are a captive population. Speaking about the Israeli government’s plans to invade Rafah, the UN special rapporteur in Palestine stated starkly: “The risk of a massacre of unprecedented scale looms on the horizon.”

First, Israel destroyed the north of Gaza, concentrating people in Rafah. Then, it engineered a humanitarian crisis, destroying medical infrastructure and food supplies, refusing to allow aid to enter, and pushing the United States to cut funding to UNRWA. Now, the Israeli military plans to invade and decimate the refugee camp of its own creation. This is nothing short of a policy of extermination.

The Palestinian population in Rafah is essentially defenseless. “The unprecedented density of Rafah’s population makes it nearly impossible to protect civilians in the event of ground attacks,” a UN spokesperson said.

Fleeing to Egypt is not an option, either. The Egyptian government absolutely refuses to allow the Palestinians in Rafah to enter — knowing that it is almost certain that Israel would never allow them to return to Gaza. This would be a displacement even greater in population than the Nakba of 1948, in which 75 percent of the Palestinian population was expelled from their homes.

Trapping Palestinians between a militarized border and its genocidal army, what the Israeli government is calling an “invasion” would look more like a mass displacement — or a mass execution. The miserable fact is that these scores of deaths are preventable: those from famine and disease, by allowing in aid; those from the ongoing Israeli military assault, by an immediate cease-fire. But the Israeli government has every intention of hastening this cataclysm, and the US government is still, unconscionably, horrifyingly, refusing to stop supporting this accelerating genocide.

From the very beginning of the Israeli onslaught against the people of Gaza, a cease-fire has been desperately needed to save lives. More than a third of a year into this unspeakable brutality, this may be the most dire hour of all. The hands of the US government are soaked in blood. We need an immediate and permanent cease-fire now.