A video from a house in Rafah showed the body of a Palestinian girl, her legs shredded into ribbons of flesh; other footage from the city showed a bleeding boy being carried away, and four more children dead on hospital stretchers.
One hundred and sixty four people have been killed and another 200 wounded across the Gaza Strip in the past 24 hours, according to the health ministry. The overnight operation in Rafah, a place that has largely been spared the widespread aerial attacks in other parts of the enclave, shocked a bone-tired population that has spent months on the move, trying to outrun the bombs.
Palestinian families are packed into houses and tents in Rafah; some newer arrivals are sleeping in the streets. They are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian relief, as aid groups warn of a looming famine, and disconnected from loved ones in other parts of the Strip because cellular connections are patchy and there is no electricity to charge most phones.
“We are tired and cannot bear any more of this torture,” said Mirvat, 51, who is staying in a tent with her sister’s family in Rafah after being displaced from Gaza City. “All that I hope now is that the war ends.”
“I don’t know where to go,” she added, echoing a sentiment expressed across Gaza. “There is no place safe.” She spoke on the condition she be identified by her first name for security reasons.
U.N. chief António Guterres, noting that half of Gaza’s population is already crammed into Rafah, said on social media that the looming Israeli campaign “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare.”
The conflict began on Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants ambushed Israeli border communities from Gaza, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostage. More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory military campaign, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and much of the Strip has been has been flattened by airstrikes. Israeli authorities say Hamas is holding the bodies of around 30 people who died in captivity or who were killed on Oct. 7.
The Israel Defense Forces have said that at least 9,000 militants have been killed so far, though Hamas’s senior leaders remain at large. Israeli authorities believe they are sheltering in Rafah, alongside more than 100 remaining hostages.
Israeli officials argue that they cannot complete their fight against Hamas without pursing the group into Rafah, a prospect that has alarmed the United States, Israel’s closest ally, which continues to provide the country with weapons and diplomatic support.
After Biden and Netanyahu spoke Sunday for the first time in more than three weeks, a U.S. administration official said the American position on Rafah had been made “very clear.” The United States would not support such an operation unless Israel has a plan for civilian protection and sustenance “that was actually planned, prepared and implementable,” they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with White House rules.
It was unclear if the U.S. president was aware that a major operation to rescue the two hostages would follow hours later. In a news briefing, IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said that the mission had been planned “for some time.”
The bombardment lasted only a few hours, but its impact lingered Monday in the houses and tents where civilians reached by phone said that they had barely slept. Once again, they faced impossible decisions about where to go.
In late October, Israel told 1 million Palestinians in the north to move south for their safety, though intensive bombing continued across the enclave. In January, Israeli forces advanced into Khan Younis, a southern area where they had initially told Gazans to flee.
Israeli authorities have designated a beachside area called Mawasi, west of Khan Younis, as a “safer zone.” But strikes have hit there, too, and there is little aid there to go around.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, said he was “deeply concerned” by the reports from Rafah. “All wars have rules and the laws applicable to armed conflict cannot be interpreted so as to render them hollow or devoid of meaning,” he said in a statement posted to X.
Aheda Abu Ataya, 40, who fled to Rafah with her children, said the house next to their tent was hit in the overnight strikes, trapping her under the rubble. Her neighbors pulled her out alive.
“We survived by a divine miracle,” she said. “What happened yesterday cannot be described. This is the second time I almost lost my life.”
Palestinian families who have moved repeatedly say each displacement is harder than the last. Food and water are difficult to carry. Children who have brought their favorite toys with them become inconsolable when they are left behind in the chaos. Communications challenges make it nearly impossible to know what awaits them in other parts of the Strip.
Above all, there is the question of where to go. A humanitarian worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said his family of five was running out of options. They had fled their home in Khan Younis in early December; now, they were preparing to head back, despite frequent attacks on the city.
He said they would be joining two dozen other relatives in his family’s one-bedroom house by the sea. The last remaining route connecting southern, central and northern Gaza — known as al-Rasheed or Beach Road — remained open, he said, though for how long he did not know. During earlier forced evacuations, some IDF-designated routes led civilians into the line of fire. Israeli forces have also arrested an unknown number of people at checkpoints along evacuation routes.
“So many people are moving now,” he said. “We have no choice. This is what we do to survive.”
For most people, there remains no way to leave Gaza.
Before the war, Gazans who fit certain criteria could pay several hundred dollars to an Egyptian company to coordinate their exit through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. The price has now shot up to $5,000 per adult or more, well out of reach for most families in the impoverished enclave.
Even for the few who can afford it, the process remains opaque and uncertain. On Monday, the Egyptian company, Hala, posted a notice on its website saying that it was temporarily not accepting new applicants because its waitlist was too long.
On a public Telegram channel about the Rafah crossing, Gazans on Monday tried to crowdsource their options, pleading for help getting on a list for departure and making the payment. “Which is better,” one person wrote, “for someone to remain in Rafah or return to the middle?”
Harb and Loveluck reported from London. Karen DeYoung in Washington, Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo and Hazem Balousha in Amman contributed to this report.