Amid fears of a coming ground invasion in Rafah, ActionAid is warning that any intensification in attacks on the governate – which is now home to more than half the entire population of Gaza – would have utterly disastrous consequences.
Airstrikes have already reportedly increased in Rafah, the most southern zone of the besieged strip. With the area now hosting more than 1.4 million people, or more than five times its usual population, any attacks would undoubtedly cause a high number of casualties and make the distribution of aid even more challenging.
There is nowhere left for people in Gaza to flee to. More than 85% of its 2.3 million inhabitants have been forced to leave their homes over the last four months, with many displaced multiple times. The huge influx of people arriving in Rafah has already put enormous strain on infrastructure and resources, yet people are continuing to arrive in their thousands. Overcrowding is extreme, with any available space taken up by tents, some of which are home to up to 12 people. Thousands of people are living crammed into increasingly unsanitary shelters, where hundreds of people share a single toilet.
Sawsan*, aged 10, was displaced from her home with her family and is currently staying in an UNRWA school shelter elsewhere in Gaza. She said:
"In the school, there are more than 9000 people...I have to endure a lot to go to the bathroom. We stand in line with approximately 50 people waiting for four bathrooms. This is not right. We should not have to live like this.”
Raneem, 21, who is also living in a school shelter, said:
“It is a major crisis: there is no water, no cleaning materials, few bathrooms, and there are a lot of people from outside [the shelter] coming in to use them. The water flows once every three days, and just for half an hour, and then it stops. It does not flow continuously at night, and there are no toilet papers or cleaning materials.
“There is also disease spreading in the school because of the bathrooms. Diseases such as influenza and colds are very common. At night, we do not eat so as not to go to the bathroom, and we do not drink water so as not to go to the bathroom.”
Meanwhile, food is becoming so scarce that people are resorting to eating grass, ActionAid has learned. Every single person in Gaza is now hungry, and people have just 1.5 to 2 litres of unsafe water per day to meet all their needs. Without enough to eat and without adequate clothing for the cold and rainy weather, people are more susceptible to the diseases and infections that are rapidly spreading through the population.
Iman is a mother of four currently living in a displaced persons camp. Both she and her husband are severely visually impaired, which makes coping with their current conditions even harder. She said:
"It is very difficult for someone who is visually impaired to live in a tent. I cannot do my laundry, cannot cook, and cannot make a fire to cook. The environmental pollution here is causing diarrhea, vomiting, and stomachaches, not to mention the emotional distress we are facing. Life is very difficult. Even those who survived the Nakba in 1948 said these were darker times than back then. Thankfully bread is available again, but we sadly don’t have the money for it.
“I swear to God Almighty, my children only have the clothes they are wearing...It is so difficult to watch your children suffer from incontinence due to their fear of the war. Children wet their clothes...and they have nothing to wear until their clothes are washed and dried. What I need at this moment are clothes and food for my children, nutritious food.
“The children’s hair is falling out, and we are suffering from joint pains. We can barely walk, and we have back pain from sleeping on the floor. These basic, thin mattresses are the reason behind our backaches.”
Riham Jafari, Advocacy and Communications Coordinator at ActionAid Palestine said:
“We are deeply concerned by reports of a potential ground invasion in Rafah and increased airstrikes on the area. Let us be absolutely clear: any intensification of hostilities in Rafah, where more than 1.4 million people are sheltering, would be absolutely disastrous. More than 27,000 people have already been killed in this months-long nightmare in Gaza: it is impossible to see how this number wouldn’t soar even higher if the final remaining supposedly safe place in the strip came under attack. Where on earth is Gaza’s exhausted and starving population supposed to go?
“People are now so desperate that they’re eating grass in a last attempt to stave off hunger. Meanwhile infections and diseases are running rampant amid such overcrowded conditions. The only thing that will stop this situation spinning even further out of control is an immediate and permanent ceasefire – it's the only way to stop more lives being lost and to allow enough lifesaving aid to enter the territory.”
Contact the ActionAid press office on firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07753 973 486.