Palestinians sheltering in crowded tent cities along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt were fearful on Tuesday after a senior Israeli minister reiterated that Israel’s ground invasion would extend to Rafah, the southernmost city in the enclave where hundreds of thousands of displaced people have ended up.
The statement by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has left Palestinians — many of whom are exhausted from relocating multiple times and sleeping in tents in cold and rainy weather — uncertain about where to seek safety. It was at least the second time in recent days that Mr. Gallant has vowed to make such an advance.
“We’re terrified,” said Rajab al-Sindawi, a 48-year-old secondhand clothing salesman from Gaza City. “We’ve been running away from death, moving from place to place, but now we’re at the border. Where should we go?”
Mr. al-Sindawi, his wife and their seven children arrived in Rafah in early January after moving several times in search of safety.
While the army considers Rafah its next operational target, the security establishment needs to complete more planning before sending ground forces into the area, said an Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to communicate with the media.
Entering Rafah will be “extremely complicated,” the official said, noting that security officials were taking into account Egyptian sensitivities about Israeli forces operating near the border, as well as the enormous civilian population.
The al-Sindawis have been living in a makeshift structure of loose plastic draped over wooden beams on a sidewalk in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah. While they have tried to make their encampment more livable, adding a table to prepare food, it has been a challenge to keep the space clean, especially with the mud from recent rainfall.
Mr. al-Sindawi, whose left leg is partially paralyzed, said he and his family had only two mattress pads and six blankets for bedding.
Over the past day, Israeli forces have hit structures across Gaza, including in the vicinity of the Nasser Medical Complex in the southern city of Khan Younis, the second-largest hospital in the territory. The Israeli army said its forces were continuing to fight militants in western Khan Younis. It also said it conducted an airstrike that killed an Islamic Jihad fighter in the central Gaza city of Deir al Balah who it said had participated in the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.
More than 100 people were killed in the previous 24 hours, the Gazan health ministry said Tuesday morning.
Speaking at a news conference on Monday, Mr. Gallant said Israeli ground forces would invade places that they still have not reached in central and southern Gaza, including Rafah, which he labeled “the last stronghold remaining in Hamas’s hands.”
“Every terrorist hiding in Rafah should know that their end will be like those in Khan Younis, Gaza City, and every other place in the Gaza Strip: surrender or death,” Mr. Gallant said.
The comments, which came as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was in the region to press for a cease-fire, were in line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance that Israel will continue fighting Hamas in Gaza until “complete victory.” Israel is still awaiting the armed group’s response to a proposed initial framework for a cease-fire and the release of more Israeli hostages from Gaza.
With the ground invasion having steadily pushed Gazans farther and farther south, Rafah’s population is believed to have roughly quintupled since the start of the war, according to the United Nations. Egypt has rejected the idea of opening its border to allow large numbers of the displaced to take temporary refuge on its territory.
Sana al-Karabiti, 34, originally from Gaza City, said the possibility of ground troops entering Rafah was bringing back harrowing memories of when Israeli tanks pulled into her neighborhood early in the war.
”I can feel my hair turning gray,” said Ms. al-Karabiti, a pharmacist who has been huddling in a tent in the al-Salam neighborhood of Rafah. “I keep asking myself what I’ll do if they reach where I am.”
A small number of people in Rafah were already dismantling their tents, packing their bags and fleeing to central Gaza, but Mr. al-Sindawi was unsure whether it would be safer there.
“We’re thinking about going to Nuseirat, but we’re also hearing in the news about bombings in Nuseirat,” he said, referring to an area in central Gaza where his family members live. “We have no idea what to do.”
Other displaced Palestinians were frustrated that Israeli officials had told them Rafah would be safe — but are now talking about entering the city.
“Why did they tell us to come here?” said Mukhlis al-Masri, 32, who has been staying at a United Nations school in Rafah. “This is so unjust.”
Abu Bakr Bashir contributed reporting from London.