Israel Is Carrying Out a Horrific Ground Invasion of Rafah

Israel has begun a ground assault on Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge from the brutal war on Gaza. International observers say the attack on Rafah, now the most densely populated place on Earth, will mean mass killings of civilians.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike on Rafah, Gaza, on May 7, 2024. (Jehad Alshrafi / Anadolu via Getty Images)

“Rafah is now a city of children, who have nowhere safe to go in Gaza.”

That’s how the United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) officials describe the refugee town that is now being decimated by Israel’s heavy bombardment and ground invasion.

Having already killed over thirty-five thousand Palestinians in Gaza, most of them children, Israel’s genocidal machine is now bearing down on Rafah — the last refuge for Palestinians fleeing the destruction elsewhere in Gaza. Overnight, Israeli forces invaded Rafah and seized control of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, while Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tanks pushed deeper into Rafah and rolled through the Gaza side with colossal Israeli flags.

Israel now occupies the two main crossings into southern Gaza, Rafah and Kerem Shalom, virtually sealing Gaza off from the outside world. Palestinians in Gaza are now caged, with no way in or out, while aid is completely blocked. International aid agencies have said the closing of the two crossings, the lifelines for over two million people in Gaza, amounts to forced starvation.

“Another Utterly Despicable War Crime”

The Israeli invasion comes despite international appeals to spare Rafah, and only hours after Hamas accepted Israel’s cease-fire proposal, which includes releasing all the hostages. The invasion has cut short spontaneous celebrations in Gaza following news of potential cease-fire, as children and women took to the streets in a spark of fleeting hope.

The invasion will mean horrific atrocities for Palestinians in Rafah. Rafah is a small dusty town located on the southern Gaza border with Egypt. A tiny sliver of land half the size of Disney World, Rafah has been swelled by refugees to six times its prewar population. It now provides shelter to nearly 1.5 million Palestinian refugees, who have been forcibly displaced and bombed out of Gaza by Israeli forces. These include over six hundred thousand girls and boys sheltering in tents, many of whom have been orphaned by the war. International observers describe the children as malnourished, sick, and traumatized.

Teeming with tents and overcrowded street corners and sandy plots, Rafah is right now the most densely populated place on earth. People sleep in the streets, makeshift shelters, public housing, cemeteries, and whatever empty space available. According to UNICEF, there is approximately one toilet for every 850 people, and one shower for every 3,600 people. Food and water are scarce. Medicine is depleting fast. Orphaned children wander the streets searching for food, barefoot and dusty, with no family or relatives to watch over them; many families can’t even find or afford tents. There are three hospitals serving 1.5 million displaced people.

Leading up to the ground invasion, Israel has been carpet-bombing Rafah camps relentlessly, blitzing the refugee town with massive air strikes, flare bombs, and fire belts, wiping out whole neighborhoods and massacring entire families in what had been designated by Israel as a “safe zone.” Footage shows Rafah being decimated with US-made bombs.

Overnight, Israeli air strikes on Rafah killed twenty people, including six children. At least sixty Palestinians have been killed in the recent bombardments, with hundreds more wounded. The victims include baby Hani, who was saved by doctors from his mother’s womb after his parents were killed in an Israeli air strike in October. Following its bombardment of Rafah on Monday, a weeping old man told Al Jazeera: “They have left no trees, no homes, no people, and no trace of life. Hasn’t the world seen our slain children?”

With its invasion of Rafah, Israel seems intent on destroying every aspect of life in Gaza. On Monday, the Israeli military dropped leaflets ordering the “evacuation” of Palestinians in eastern Rafah, home to Rafah’s main hospital, Yosef al-Najjar, where 250,000 people are taking shelter in refugee camps. Palestinians in Rafah report having received phone calls and messages with genocidal threats.

The evacuation orders amount to forced displacement of Palestinians who have been already displaced several times. Exhausted from constant displacement, many have decided to stay and die in Rafah, making the prospect of mass slaughter there close to inevitable. Tuesday evening, the Israeli army expelled all patients, doctors, and nurses from the hospital.

Ahead of its invasion, the Israeli army erected checkpoints to block Palestinian men of “military age” from exiting Rafah, forcibly separating fathers and sons from their families to pave the way for their field executions.

In the words of Jeremy Corbyn, “The assault on Rafah is another utterly despicable war crime.”

United Nations officials, including Secretary-General António Guterres, have been warning that an Israeli invasion of Rafah will lead to the mass killing of Palestinian civilians seeking refuge from the war. “A military assault on Rafah would be an unbearable escalation, killing thousands more civilians & forcing hundreds of thousands to flee,” Guterres wrote on Twitter/X on Tuesday. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has warned of a “bloodbath” in Rafah. James Elder, UNICEF’s global spokesperson, wrote in the Guardian: “In Rafah I saw new graveyards fill with children. It is unimaginable that worse could be yet to come.”

The assault on Rafah comes days after the horrific discovery of mass graves at Gaza’s two largest hospitals, Nasser and al-Shifa, where hundreds of bodies have been uncovered, while others remain buried deep in the ground. Laboring under heavy bombardment and massive airstrikes, Palestinians continue to pull dead bodies from the rubble throughout Gaza.

“Gaza Has Shattered Records for Humanity’s Darkest Chapter”

The invasion is but the latest chapter of Israel’s genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Gaza. The invasion comes days after a top Israeli minister, echoing Netanyahu’s rhetoric invoking the Amaleks, called for the “total annihilation” of Gaza, and shortly after the chair of the ruling Likud Party’s international arm said Israel should “kill everyone” in Rafah, children included.

For months, Israel’s horrific campaign against Rafah has sent waves of terror through the exhausted camps, putting traumatized children and frightened parents on edge. According to Elder, “The deprivation means despair pervades the population. And people’s nerves are shattered amid unrelenting attacks. . . . They were so desperate for their nightmare to end, that they hoped to be killed.”

The Rafah invasion comes shortly after Congress approved the largest military aid package to Israel in US history. In an attempt to massacre Palestinians in the dark and silence those who speak up against genocide, Israel has expelled Al Jazeera, while the United States has potentially banned TikTok, clamped down on antigenocide protests on its campuses, and passed a new McCarthyite bill aiming at criminalizing criticism of Israel in the United States under the guise of fighting antisemitism. And in a blatant assault on the idea of international justice, twelve Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, signed a letter threatening International Criminal Court officials and their family members with sanctions and other penalties if they move forward with international arrest warrants against Israeli leaders accused of committing war crimes in Gaza.

In a tragic historical irony, the Rafah invasion is coinciding with Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is commemorated with the promise of “Never Again.” It also coincides with Nakba Day, where heartbreaking scenes of exodus unfolding from Rafah are horrifically echoing past injustices — a chilling reminder that the Nakba never really ended.

The tragedy in Gaza is unfolding in broad daylight, with the United States’ implicit approval and Western complicity more broadly. As UNICEF’s James Elder put it, “Gaza has shattered humanity’s records for its darkest chapters. Humanity must now urgently write a different chapter.”