Middle East

Satellite imagery shows Palestinians fleeing Rafah’s tent cities as threat of major attack looms

By Paul P. Murphy, CNN

CNN  — 

Palestinians are fleeing Rafah’s tent cities in large numbers as the threat of a potential major Israeli assault in the southern Gaza city looms, new satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows.

CNN has identified several camps sheltering Gaza’s vast refugee population – including the main camp in central Rafah that housed thousands of tents – which have significantly decreased in size between Tuesday and Wednesday. Although some camps in Rafah did see a decrease in population earlier in the week, the majority of camps identified by CNN saw their greatest declines since Tuesday.

Satellite images show tent camps in Rafah, Gaza, on May 5 and May 8. Planet Labs, PBC

Some of the tent camps had been in United Nations schools, others in open fields, or along roadways for months. Now, a significant number have vanished, but many remain in the camps despite orders from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to leave.

At least 110,000 Palestinians have fled Rafah since Monday, after the IDF issued an evacuation order, according to the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

Streams of Palestinians made their way to Al-Mawasi earlier this week, following an Israeli relocation order. The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Jan Egeland, warned that dire conditions there, including a lack of stable security, adequate accommodation or space, “qualifies Israel’s relocation directives as forcible transfer, amounting to a serious violation of international law.”

Palestinians forced to evacuate eastern Rafah, on May 8, carry their belongings as Israeli forces intensified attacks on the city, in southern Gaza.

Rafah has become the central focus of Israel’s war in Gaza, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces growing pressure from the extreme wing of his coalition to launch a full-scale ground operation in the city to destroy Hamas, while the more moderate wing has urged him to prioritize securing a ceasefire-for-hostages deal.

Israel launched a military assault on Gaza on October 7 after the militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, killed at least 1,200 people in Israel and abducted more than 250 others.

Israel’s offensive has since pulverized patches of the Gaza Strip and drastically diminished critical supplies, exposing the entire population of more than 2.2 million people to the risk of famine. Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed 34,904 Palestinians and injured another 78,514 people, according to the Ministry of Health there.

International pressure is growing for Israel not to move in on the densely populated city bordering Egypt. During nearly seven months of war, more than 1 million Palestinians have taken refuge in Rafah. Hamas is also believed to have regrouped in the area, after Israel’s destruction of much of the strip’s north.

Satellite images show tent camps in Rafah, Gaza, on May 5 and May 8. Planet Labs, PBC

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden sent shockwaves through the US and Israel when he warned that the US would halt some shipments of American weapons should Netanyahu order a major invasion of the city.

But Netanyahy responded defiantly saying in a speech “if we need to stand alone, we will stand alone. I have said that, if necessary, we will fight with our fingernails.”

Gazans began fleeing Rafah on Monday, after Israel’s military issued a call for residents in the east of Rafah to “evacuate immediately” toward Al Mawasi and other areas north of Rafah. Many people have fled further north than Al-Mawasi, heading for areas in central Gaza that have more infrastructure.

The IDF began conducting ground operations on Tuesday, after seizing the Gaza-side of the Rafah border crossing. Those operations are ongoing, but are largely focused in the easternmost sections of Rafah – just over a mile away from the closest camp CNN identified.

A full-scale Israeli ground attack on Rafah could lead to “potential mass atrocities,” Egeland, the NRC chief, said on Monday.

This story has been updated with new information.

Kareem Khadder, Jessie Gretener, and Sharon Braithwaite contributed reporting.

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