600,000 Palestinian Kids in Rafah Can’t “Evacuate” Safely, UNICEF Official Says


Jeremy Scahill | The Intercept - TRANSCEND Media Service

Palestinian children pack onto a truck to evacuate Rafah, Gaza, on 8 May 2024.
Photo: Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images

“The reality for kids living there is shocking, honestly,” said an official who recently returned from Gaza. “People are living in really squalid conditions.”

8 May 2024 – Rolling its tanks this week into Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military moved swiftly to take control of the Palestinian side of the border crossing with Egypt. The takeover severed the only corridor connecting Palestinians in Gaza to land not controlled by Israel. In a gratuitous symbolic act, an Israeli tank bulldozed the “I love Gaza” monument greeting visitors as they cross into the territory from Egypt.

The attack — and the looming full-scale invasion of Rafah being threatened by Israel despite heavily qualified White House objections — leaves Palestinian civilians bearing the brunt of the relentless assault. Israel quickly closed the Rafah border crossing. The closing leaves the trickling spigots of aid to Gaza virtually shut off.

“They’re exhausted, traumatized, sick, hungry, and their ability to safely evacuate is limited.”

Residents of Gaza are once again being forced into a dystopian game show where they must scramble to comprehend maps the Israelis created, marking which squared-off area they must move to in order to avoid certain death. Images relayed on social media by the Israeli military’s Arabic language spokesperson instructed civilians in Rafah to move back toward central Gaza to Khan Younis, a territory left in ruins after sustained Israeli air and ground attacks.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, is pleading with the Israeli government and its backers to ceasefire and reverse course on plans for a full-scale Rafah invasion.

“There’s 600,000 children that are seeking shelter in Rafah and that many of them have been displaced multiple times already,” UNICEF’s Tess Ingram, who recently returned from Gaza, told The Intercept. “They’re exhausted, traumatized, sick, hungry, and their ability to safely evacuate is limited.”

“The area that they’re being directed to evacuate to is not safe. It’s not safe because there aren’t the services there to meet their basic needs, water, toilets, shelter,” she said in an interview. “But it’s also not safe because we know that that area has been subject to strikes despite being a so-called safe zone. So we’re really concerned about that impact of a ground offensive on one of the most densely populated areas in the world.”

Prior to the onset of Israel’s scorched-earth war on Gaza, Rafah was a city of approximately 250,000 people. As a result of Palestinians fleeing Israeli attacks, the population is currently estimated at 1.4 million.

“The reality for kids living there is shocking, honestly. People are living in really squalid conditions,” Ingram said. “It’s just incredibly crowded space. Everywhere you walk, you’re almost shoulder to shoulder with another person. Makeshift shelters expand from buildings across the sidewalk onto the road. People are living wherever they can find space in, you know, under bits of tarpaulin or blankets. And this expands as far as the eye can see.”

Ingram said UNICEF has been unable to get supplies or fuel into Gaza since Sunday.

“We are really scraping the bottom of the barrel now with the fuel that we have left in Gaza. We haven’t been able to get more in,” she said. “And that fuel is the lifeblood of the humanitarian aid operations in Gaza. And without it, important systems like [desalination] plants, hospitals, food delivery and trucks, they’ll all cease to exist.”

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller confirmed Ingram’s claim, saying at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon that no fuel had entered through either the Rafah crossing or Karem Shalom, despite U.S. urging. He added that the U.S. has told Israel that by taking control of the crossing, they now have the responsibility to open it swiftly. Even if aid trucks begin entering Gaza again, he added, aid can’t be distributed without fuel.

Israel Won’t Back Down

The onset of the dire conditions came as Israeli forces continued to bomb Rafah and move forces into the environs, both strategically seizing territory like the border crossing and amassing troops in preparation for an all-out invasion.

Over the past seven months of unrelenting attacks against the civilian population of the Strip, during which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, Israeli officials and spokespeople have told the world Israel has no intention to occupy Gaza. The seizure of Rafah is a powerful reminder that this was and remains a lie.

Even without its tanks positioned at the crossing, Israel wields supreme authority of what crosses into the beleaguered territory; Israel already had security inspections set up on the Egyptian side, which have been delaying the delivery of aid since last year. The presence of tanks on the Gaza side only serves to publicly militarize that reality.

The Biden administration has spent weeks pushing a narrative in the media that Rafah represents a red line for the administration. Yet when President Joe Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the operation, a senior Israeli official said, “Biden didn’t pull the hand [brake] on the capture of the Rafah crossing.”

The White House expressed some mild concerns about the seizure of the border once the tanks rolled in, but National Security Council spokesperson Adm. John Kirby defended the Israeli move, saying the administration had received assurances from the Israelis that it would not be “a major ground operation.”

While the U.S. symbolically delayed one weapons shipment, American officials made clear they intend to continue arming Israel. Israel downplayed the significance of the weapons delay and said the longtime allies are working out the issues behind closed doors.

Some of the behind-the-scenes tensions burst into public this week, as Likud official Tali Gottlieb, a member of the Knesset, lashed out at the U.S., threatening to ramp up war crimes in response to the weapons pause. “The US is threatening not to give us precise missiles. Oh yeah?” she said. “Well, I got news for the US. We have imprecise missiles. I’ll use it. I’ll just collapse ten buildings. Ten buildings. That’s what I’ll do.”

Asked by The Intercept about Gottlieb’s threat, the State Department spokesperson denounced it. “Those comments are absolutely deplorable and senior members of the Israeli government should refrain from making them,” Miller said.

Biden went further on Wednesday, telling CNN’s Erin Burnett that if Israel invades Rafah, the U.S. will cut off supplies of artillery shells, bombs, and other offensive weapons.

The Israeli government has offered a potpourri of justifications for the Rafah incursion: to defeat four Hamas battalions, to shut down smuggling routes, to put pressure on Hamas to sign a deal to release Israeli hostages. The families of Israeli hostages, for their part, have been holding large demonstrations demanding Netanyahu sign a deal immediately to free the captives.

Such a deal was on the table when Israel took the border crossing, but Israeli officials have redoubled their vows to conquer Rafah with or without an agreement.

UNICEF estimates that people in Rafah have approximately 3 liters of safe water per day and must use that for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. The agency says that a minimum of 15 liters per person, per day is recommended for populations in an emergency. There is currently one toilet per 850 people. Diarrhea is rampant, women and girls do not have consistent access to sanitary products, and diapers for babies are scarce.

“People can’t wait hours to use a bathroom or they don’t feel safe doing so. And so people have to resort to other methods, like open defecation,” said Ingram, the UNICEF official. “When you walk through Rafah, you often see and smell and have to move around leaking sewage because the sanitation systems are not working properly, people don’t have other options.”

If Israel expands its operations in Rafah, causing a mass exodus of people, the areas they are being directed to flee to do not have even the fragile, inadequate infrastructure.

“It’s hard to fathom that a situation that is already so bad can become worse, but it can become worse for these people if they are forced to evacuate to an area that is unsafe, that has no basic services that they need to survive. And Rafah was already lacking both of those things,” Ingram said.

“When we’re talking about vulnerable children who have survived seven months of war and who are bearing the scars of that war, either physically or psychologically, their ability to move to these sorts of areas and survive there is impacted because they’re exhausted and they’re traumatized, and they need greater support, not less.”

Update: May 8, 2024, 6:48 p.m. ET:

This story has been updated to include comments from Biden and the State Department.


Jeremy Scahill is an investigative reporter, war correspondent and author of the international bestselling books Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield and Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere across the globe. Scahill has served as the National Security Correspondent for The Nation Magazine and Democracy Now!. His work has sparked several Congressional investigations and won some of journalism’s highest honors. He was twice awarded the prestigious George Polk Award, in 1998 for foreign reporting and in 2008 for his book Blackwater. Scahill is a producer and writer of the award-winning film Dirty Wars, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and has been nominated for an Academy Award. jeremy.scahill@​theintercept.com

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