“The Scenes in Rafah Are Straight From a Nightmare”

Three displaced Palestinians describe unlivable conditions in a city bracing for imminent Israeli invasion.

Zak Hania, Ahmed Totah, and Sameera Wafi As told to Jonathan Shamir
February 20, 2024

Palestinians line up for food in Rafah in the Gaza Strip on February 16th, 2024.

AP Photo/Fatima Shbair

The city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip is ordinarily home to fewer than 300,000 people. But following Israel’s systematic campaign to render northern Gaza uninhabitable and drive its residents to the south, Rafah has become a refuge for over 1.4 million displaced Palestinians—more than half the enclave’s population. Many came to Rafah in a desperate attempt to escape starvation, disease, and relentless Israeli bombardment. “After a terrifying night of bombing [in Khan Younis], we decided to flee to Rafah, which the occupation forces had designated a ‘safe zone,’” Sameera Wafi, a journalist currently sheltering in Rafah, recounts in a dispatch below.

But in Rafah, Palestinians found more of what they were fleeing: cramped and unsanitary living conditions; dire shortages of food, water, clothing, and medicine; and, increasingly, deadly Israeli bombardment. Despite previously designating Rafah as the last safe zone in Gaza, on the night of February 11th Israel conducted heavy airstrikes on the city, killing at least 67 people and destroying 14 homes and three mosques in the span of hours. Israeli officials said these strikes were a “diversion” to enable special forces to rescue two Israeli hostages, but for the Palestinians in Rafah, the bombings were a reprisal of horrors from the north. “We were given no warnings. It was the most difficult hour and a half so far,” Wafi says. And the airstrikes were only the beginning. Israeli troops have converged around the city, awaiting the green light for a full-scale ground invasion.

Israel’s genocidal assault on the Gaza Strip has already killed at least 29,000 Palestinians in less than five months. An Israeli invasion of Rafah will precipitate an even more extreme humanitarian disaster: In addition to putting over a million displaced civilians in the line of fire, the United Nations’s human rights chief warned, such an invasion would inhibit the trickle of aid currently entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which has been the enclave’s main source of sustenance for months. The scale of the looming crisis has prompted even Western politicians, who have enthusiastically backed Israel’s war, to express their concerns. Yet Israel has vowed to press ahead with the invasion, indicating that troops will enter Rafah in the coming weeks.

Hemmed in by Israeli fire, Palestinians in Rafah have no way to ensure their safety. Some have attempted to flee back to northern areas still under bombardment. Most remain in Rafah, bracing for death and against “the feeling of being left alone to face genocide,” in the words of Zak Hania, a researcher and translator currently trapped in the city. Jewish Currents spoke to Hania, Wafi, and Ahmed Totah, a cook from northern Gaza currently sheltering in Rafah, about their grim odysseys over the past four months, the desperate conditions in the tent city where they’ve taken refuge, and the debilitating toll of the fear, grief, and uncertainty that is their constant reality. These dispatches have been edited for length and clarity.

“Is this the just world order you are always talking about?”

About a month after [October 7th], we suffered a night of pure terror. It was pitch black. Only the bombs, which were constant, lit the skies. Some of our neighbors’ houses were attacked. We didn’t believe that we would live to see the daylight. The next morning, we decided to go. It was a very difficult decision to leave our home, our life, our stuff, our memories—but we had to choose between life and death. We stayed near Al-Shifa Hospital [in Gaza City] for two days, and then we moved further east to my niece’s, where we stayed for four days. We were afraid to go south, but eventually we had no choice. We walked long distances. Israel only permitted each person to carry one small bag across the checkpoint in central Gaza. We saw children and elderly people who could hardly walk, and we saw dead bodies on the side of the road. I came to Khan Younis with my wife, my four boys, my nieces, and their kids, to stay with relatives; then Israel invaded Khan Younis, so we moved to Rafah, where I have been for a little over a month.

Rafah has been relatively quiet compared to the rest of Gaza. But that changed on the night of February 11th: We were woken up at around 1:00 am by the sound of fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and very heavy explosions. We don’t have electricity so we were experiencing this in complete darkness. It was horrible. We didn’t know what was happening. That uncertainty is the most difficult thing: We don’t know what will happen today or tomorrow. My wife and kids left for Ireland in December, but the Israeli authorities blocked me from leaving even though I am also an Irish citizen. I am afraid that I might be killed and that I won’t be able to see them again. When I start thinking that they will grow up without their dad, I want to write something for them—but I don’t want to make them more afraid than they already are.

Throughout the Strip, people are suffering and dying because of the scarcity of medicine and pressure on medical facilities. I have resistant hypertension and I am supposed to take four tablets per day. I only have access to two of them. I have stopped checking my blood pressure. I have given up on going to hospitals; the lines are too long. After my cousin was injured three months ago, he had his leg amputated. The Israelis denied him a medical permit to leave Gaza. He did not receive the right healthcare and he passed away a few days ago. My sister, who was a diabetic, died from hunger and a lack of insulin.

In Gaza, everything is scarce. No one in Rafah has enough clothes, and the clothes we do have are dirty because there is a shortage of water. People can only shower once every two or three weeks. I am staying in a room of 16 square meters with eight other people. It’s unsanitary, and the roof has holes so the rain drips in. Bakeries are not functioning because there is no fuel. Still, people are scared to leave Rafah because the problem is worse elsewhere. In the north, flour is very hard to come by, and it costs ten times the original price. Roads have been wiped away, whole neighborhoods have been leveled. The Israelis haven’t only killed people; they have also intentionally destroyed any prospect for life. They have bombed hospitals, schools, and other civic institutions.

Whether I stay in Gaza or manage to go abroad, how will I live the rest of my life having gone through these experiences? They have been beyond comprehension. I don’t understand how a human being can kill even one child, yet around 12,000 children have been killed. The world is standing by and letting this happen. I wish I could ask the United States government: Is this the just world order you are always talking about? Is this the world we wish to live in as human beings? I have such a deep pain inside of me. The Palestinian people share this feeling—the feeling of being left alone to face genocide.

Zak Hania, as told to Jonathan Shamir, February 13th

“If we had the opportunity to go to [a] safe place, we would definitely take it . . . but we do not have that kind of money.”

At the beginning of December, the Israeli army called to inform us that our neighborhood in Khan Younis was considered a combat zone, so we—my mum, my dad, my sisters and their families; 21 of us in total—moved to another sister’s house in a different neighborhood. We were not able to take anything other than a few winter clothes. From there, after a terrifying night of bombing, we decided to flee to Rafah, which the occupation forces had designated a “safe zone.” When we arrived, we couldn’t find food or shelter. We ended up spending the night in the street before returning to the home of relatives in yet another part of Khan Younis. We then received orders to evacuate this neighborhood as well, but before we managed to do so, two of my nieces—three-and-a-half-year-old Dina and eight-year-old Jana—were martyred in a missile strike. May God have mercy on them.

On January 1st, we arrived in Rafah for the second time. We are living in a house with 12 other families. It’s so crowded that you can barely move. It is better than living in tents, some of which sink in the heavy rain or blow away in the strong winds. But we still do not have basic necessities here. Most of the aid that reaches Rafah is being sold at ridiculous prices. Sometimes I have to ask friends to share their food. Families I know have gone days without eating. There are other shortages too. My mother is diabetic and suffers from high blood pressure, but there are very long waiting times at the clinics, and they don’t always have the right medicine. There are also no clothes. People are making their own from sofa fabric, which is being sold at a very high price. Getting around to obtain these items is itself difficult. The streets are flooded with sewage. People often have to walk long distances because there is almost no transportation—and even when there is, very few have the money to use it.

On Sunday night [February 11th], we woke up to the sound of explosions. At first, we thought that Israeli tanks had invaded the city. We were given no warnings. It was the most difficult hour and a half so far. Even though nowhere is safe in the Gaza Strip, we are somehow still alive. But if the Israelis do invade Rafah, where will we go? My mother and father are elderly and they cannot walk long distances. If we had the opportunity to go to Egypt, or to any other safe place, we would definitely take it. But the only way to get out is to pay a huge sum to a broker—around $5,000 per person—and we do not have that kind of money. We are afraid of what will happen to us. My message to the world is simple: Stop the war.

— Sameera Wafi, as told to Jonathan Shamir, February 16th

“Death is all around.”

Since October 7th, I have been displaced three times with my wife and three children—first to Deir al-Balah, then to Khan Younis, and finally to Rafah. These months have been the worst of my life. My son was injured as a baby during the 2008 war; he suffers from severe mental disabilities and requires constant care. When the bombing began, he was so frightened. I had to calm him continuously. It was exhausting.

The scenes in Rafah are straight from a nightmare. There are eight of us living in a single nylon tent on the beach. It is so cold that it is hard to sleep. When it rains, we spend the whole night standing because our tent floods. We are lucky that the sand absorbs the water so at least it dries over time. We eat one meal a day. Most of the [running] water is only fit for cats and dogs. When you get water from an aid agency, it does not go far: People have to share it among their whole families. Most people are buying [bottled] water, if they are able to find it. If you have money, it is sometimes still possible to acquire items on the market, but Gaza has become the most expensive place in the world. A kilogram of vegetables cost 45 shekels [$12.40]. A kilogram of sugar costs 100 shekels [$27.50]. I worked my whole life to build a good home, I took out loans; but my home was destroyed by Israeli bombing. My whole neighborhood was destroyed. It’s all gone. I don’t have a single shekel to my name, and I am still in debt.

It’s hard to complain when people have it worse. Death is all around. People are dying from hunger and ordinary illnesses. If you are injured, you will likely die before receiving care at a hospital. I’ve met people who wish that they would die so they don’t have to endure this horror. I thank God that I still have my wife and children. I don’t care about Palestine any more. I want to leave with my family. There is no future left in the Gaza Strip.

Ahmed Totah, as told to Jonathan Shamir, February 15th

Zak Hania is a 50-year-old Palestinian researcher and translator. He was born in the Al-Shati refugee camp in the northwest of the Gaza Strip.

Ahmed Totah is a 51-year-old Palestinian cook from Zeitoun in the northern Gaza Strip.

Sameera Wafi is a 31-year-old Palestinian journalist from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.

Jonathan Shamir is a Jewish Currents fellow and the former deputy editor of Haaretz.