Mapped: Where is Rafah and why is Israel invading it?

Israel has ordered the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the city of Rafah in Gaza, as fears of a ground invasion become urgent.

About 1.4 million Palestinians — more than half of Gaza‘s population — are packed into the city and its surroundings, living in densely packed tent camps, shelters or overcrowded apartments after fleeing to Rafah in hope of escaping Israel‘s attacks.

Leaflets in Rafah telling people to move to nearby Israel-declared humanitarian zone called Muwasi (Supplied)
Leaflets in Rafah telling people to move to nearby Israel-declared humanitarian zone called Muwasi (Supplied)

On Monday, people received flyers in Arabic ordering people to move to nearby Israel-declared humanitarian zone called Muwasi. The flyers detailed which neighborhood blocks needed to leave and where humanitarian zones had expanded to.

They also said aid services would spread from Deir al Balah in the north to the center of Khan Younis city in the middle of the Gaza Strip.

“Anyone found near (militant) organisations endangers themselves and their family members. For your safety, the (army) urges you to evacuate immediately to the expanded humanitarian area”, it read.

But where is Rafah, and why is Israel targeting the city now? The Independent has put together answers and a map below.

Where is Rafah?

Rafah is a city in the south of Gaza near the border of Egypt. When Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982, now part of Egypt, it was split into a Gazan and Egyptian part.

It was initially a safe haven for people fleeing northern Gaza in the early stages of the most recent Israel-Gaza conflict, when Palestinians were ordered to evacuate ahead of heavy Israeli bombardment.

But the city is now home to around 1.4 million people - more than half of Gaza’s population - and Mr Netanyahu has ordered a ground invasion of the area, where he believes Hamas operatives are hiding.

Most residents of Rafah are living in temporary structures such as tents and aid organisations have warned of a dire humanitarian situation.

A child looks at rubble after Israeli airstrikes targeted Rafah, Gaza, overnight (EPA)
A child looks at rubble after Israeli airstrikes targeted Rafah, Gaza, overnight (EPA)

Why is Israel targeting Rafah now?

Israel has described Rafah as the last significant Hamas stronghold after seven months of war, and its leaders have repeatedly said the invasion is necessary to defeat the Islamic militant group.

Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani, an army spokesman, said Israel was preparing a “limited scope operation” and would not say whether this was the beginning of a broader invasion of the city.

But after 7 October and the unprecedented attack on southern Israel by Hamas, Israel did not formally announce the launch of a ground invasion that continues to this day.

Defence minister Yoav Gallant told US secretary of defense Lloyd Austin overnight that Israel had ‘no choice’ but to act in Rafah. On Sunday, Hamas carried out a deadly rocket attack from the Rafah area that killed four Israeli soldiers.

Earlier this year, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said the operation in Rafah was very “complex”, adding: “We have been working a long time on this operation. We were waiting for the right conditions.”

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, another IDF spokesperson, called it “a complex rescue operation under fire in the heart of Rafah, based on highly sensitive and valuable intelligence from the Intelligence Directorate and the Israel Security Agency”.

What has reaction been?

The international community has warned against Israel taking action in Rafah, with renewed calls for a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict.

“An Israeli offensive in Rafah would mean more civilian suffering & deaths,” a spokesperson for UNRWA said. “The consequences would be devastating for 1.4 million people. @UNRWA is not evacuating: the Agency will maintain a presence in Rafah as long as possible & will continue providing lifesaving aid to people.”

European Union chief diplomat Josep Borrel addedl: “Israel‘s evacuation orders to civilians in Rafah portend the worst: more war and famine. It is unacceptable. Israel must renounce to a ground offensive and implement (U.N. Security Council Resolution) UNSCR 2728.

“The EU, with the International Community, can and must act to prevent such scenario.”

Politicians in the UK have also condemned the move.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy tweeted on Monday:“An Israeli offensive in Rafah would be catastrophic. It must not go ahead.

“We need an immediate ceasefire, the immediate release of hostages, and immediate unimpeded aid to Gaza.”

And a spokesperson for the French foreign ministry agreed: “France also recalls that the forced displacement of a civilian population constitutes a war crime under international law.”

Charities have warned of the lack of safe places for Palestinians to go to even if they did evacuate.

“Forcing over a million displaced Palestinians from Rafah to evacuate without a safe destination is not only unlawful but would lead to catastrophic consequences,” Action Aid said. “Our aid workers are reporting some of the most severe conditions in recent memory with widespread disease, starvation and chaos. Let us be clear, there are no safe zones in Gaza.

“The international community must act swiftly to prevent further atrocities and hold themselves as well as the Israeli government to account - if an invasion of Rafah is your ‘red line’ will you do everything possible to stop this imminent attack?”