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Short of options, Gazans try to flee Rafah ahead of Israeli operation

Gazans living in the overcrowded border city of Rafah are attempting to flee ahead of an expected military operation by Israeli forces, despite uncertainty about where to go next and dwindling resources.

“We’ve been living in a state of terror for about a week now,” Anwaar al-Rai, 48, said in an interview Tuesday. Rai, who was traveling with her husband Mahmoud al-Rai, 49, and their two daughters, said she and her husband had been reaching out to everyone they knew in the western areas of Gaza’s central region, north of Khan Younis. “We urgently need a safe haven,” she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called last week for a “massive operation” in Rafah, citing the need to “collapse” remaining Hamas militant units in the last remaining refuge in Gaza. Israeli strikes in the city on Monday, part of what Israel said was an operation to rescue hostages, have added to the fears in Rafah. The strikes killed at least 67 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

The Biden administration has repeatedly warned against any military operation in Rafah if it puts civilians at risk. President Biden said Monday that Israel must have “a credible plan to ensure the safety and support of more than 1 million people sheltering there.”

Rafah was previously one of Gaza’s last refuges, swelling to an estimated 1.4 million in population by early February, more than five times its prewar size. Many of those displaced have ended up in sprawling tent encampments on the city’s edges. The Washington Post spoke to several Gazans in Rafah who said they were trying to head north to Gaza’s central region, even though the Israeli military previously ordered the evacuation of that area.

Shadi Asaad, 32, said he was scouring charitable institutions in Rafah with his father, desperately seeking an additional tent. “I made the decision to move my family to the Deir al-Balah area,” Asaad said in an interview Tuesday, referring to part of the central region. “But with just one tent at our disposal, we require at least another.”

Tents have been provided free by charitable organizations. However, they are now being sold on the market for exorbitant prices and can fetch up to $1,000 each.

Rami Muhammad, 32, and his wife Najwa, along with their two children, found themselves displaced from their apartment near Qarara, north of Khan Younis, after the property owner sought refuge from Rafah. Muhammad and his family are now sharing a makeshift tent in Zawaida, farther north in the Deir al-Balah region.

“The soaring prices render even a basic tent unaffordable,” Muhammad said.

Here’s what else to know

CIA Director William J. Burns and Israeli intelligence chief David Barnea met Tuesday in Egypt in a continued effort to negotiate a possible hostage-release deal. U.S. officials are hopeful that Israel will have a counter to Hamas’s latest proposal, and they believe that “the shape” of an agreement “is coming together,” a senior U.S. administration official said earlier.

Two Israelis were injured by rocket fire in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, near the border with Lebanon, according to Israeli emergency services. A 15-year-old boy and a 47-year-old woman were wounded amid fire between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, but is unusual for civilians to be targeted.

The South African government made an “urgent request” to the International Court of Justice to consider whether Israel’s planned offensive in Rafah requires the court to use its power to prevent a “further imminent breach of the rights of Palestinians in Gaza.” South Africa brought a landmark genocide case against Israel in December; in an initial ruling, the ICJ ordered Israel to do more to prevent the killing of civilians but did not call for a cease-fire.

At least 28,473 people have been killed and 68,146 injured in Gaza since the war began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.

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