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Gaza aid groups brace for Israeli invasion of Rafah

As Israel continues to threaten a full-scale assault on Rafah in southern Gaza, local, regional, and international aid groups have been scrambling to try to prepare to respond to the catastrophic humanitarian impact a ground invasion is expected to have. Facing a severe scarcity of supplies and resources, people involved in the effort say whatever preparations they are able to make will undoubtedly fall far short of the needs.

"We're taking the Israel threats very seriously, and are acting accordingly," Dr. Bashar Murad, executive director of the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza, told The New Humanitarian. "We've seen what the Israeli military is capable of doing in Gaza City, in the north of Gaza, and in Khan Younis. This could all be replicated in Rafah too."

The nearby coastal region of al-Mawasi—which Israel unilaterally declared a "safe zone" earlier in the war, although it has continued to bomb and kill civilians in the area—has become a staging ground for these efforts. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have already relocated to al-Mawasi from all over Gaza. Preparing for a new influx from Rafah, aid groups have been building new displacement camps, emergency medical clinics, food warehouses, and other humanitarian infrastructure in the area.

Israel, however, is continuing to obstruct the delivery of aid to Gaza and hamper humanitarian activities—including by killing an unprecedented number of aid workers—inside the enclave. A sparsely populated agricultural area before the war, al-Mawasi also lacks basic infrastructure, such as paved roads, water supply lines, electricity, and sanitation facilities. These limitations are making it difficult for aid groups to find suitable locations to establish facilities and enough supplies to stock them.

Still, the increasing number of medical clinics, community kitchens, aid distribution points, warehouses, and temporary field offices for local and international aid groups was clearly visible on a recent visit to al-Mawasi by The New Humanitarian. Many facilities are housed in tents and sheds, while seaside vacation homes and vegetable and poultry farms have been repurposed into aid warehouses and communal kitchens.

"All these efforts will amount to nothing in the case of an Israeli invasion of Rafah," Dawoud al-Astal, a relief activist and supervisor at the local Al-Fajr Youth Association, which has been providing support to displaced people in al-Mawasi, told The New Humanitarian.

Much-needed humanitarian work may come to a halt altogether because it is unclear how aid will reach Gaza if the two main border crossings used to bring aid in—both in Rafah—are cut off by an invasion, the Red Crescent's Murad added.

With a population of around 275,000 before the war, Rafah is the last major urban area in Gaza that is yet to see a large-scale Israeli ground offensive. Around 1.4 million people forcibly displaced from their homes in other parts of Gaza have taken shelter in and around the city. Aid groups are expecting many of these people to flood into al-Mawasi if and when an Israeli invasion of Rafah begins.

— Mohamed Soulaimane for The New Humanitarian, April 11 (excerpt)