Israel’s Rafah operation is fueling tensions with Washington. Here’s the reality on the ground.

Aid groups say the situation in Rafah is unsustainable with fuel levels running dangerously low.

To aid groups working in Rafah, the debate over Israel’s military operation in southern Gaza looks like only one thing: semantics.

Israel’s military insists it has only launched a “limited” operation at the edge of a densely packed city — and not the full-blown invasion that the Biden administration warns would be a “red line” that could fray the relationship between the two allies.

But the city of 1.4 million, filled with war refugees from northern Gaza, is already a slow-moving disaster, said Scott Anderson, the deputy director of UNRWA, the main U.N. agency in Gaza, and one of its few staffers still in Rafah.

Anderson told POLITICO that the Israeli incursion of Israeli troops into the southeastern part of the city is already causing chaos, and prevented aid from reaching people who desperately need it. UNRWA’s fuel stocks are depleted and its food rations will run out on Friday, he warned in a Zoom interview Monday.

The Biden administration has said a major invasion would be a red line — noting that it could result in more civilian deaths. But aid groups note that they’re already having difficulty distributing much needed aid to the more than 1.4 million people residing there. And the current fighting has killed dozens of people in the last 24 hours.

Anderson argues that however Israel has chosen to describe its current operation in Rafah as immaterial to the reality on the ground. His interview illuminates what’s at stake for Gazans in the coming days and weeks if Israel follows through with its promise to move forward with a large ground invasion of Rafah.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain exactly what has been happening in Rafah since the Israeli Defense Forces started their operation?

The Rafah crossing closed about two o’clock Sunday because there was mortar fire from Hamas into the crossing. The next morning, the IDF called saying there would be evacuation orders issued for East Rafah — about 100,000 people. There was fighting throughout today. Then, we thought there was going to be a cease-fire. That obviously didn’t turn out to be true.

What’s the situation in the city today?

What we’re seeing today is an increase in the amount of people that are displacing from Rafah, not just the areas that were given evacuation orders but across Rafah itself. Roads are quite clogged. UNRWA had seven shelters inside the evacuation zone, all emptied. Each one had 5,000-7,000 people. We’ve seen a larger presence from the IDF on the ground. There were strikes today further West into Rafah town proper, well outside of the evacuation zone.

Who has been evacuated from Rafah?

Outside my window, there’s a big tent city area, with plastic makeshift structures. Yesterday I watched a whole bunch of people pack their stuff up and leave, and today I watched a bunch of other people come in and set their tents up. I think they move from East Rafa to West Rafa, and I think they are just trying to stay ahead of what they see as the operation.

People who have been displaced multiple times are taking all their belongings with them.

Where are Gazans from Rafah going? It seems like nowhere is safe.

Some are trying to go to Al-Mawasi [a small strip of land on the water in southwestern Gaza]. It is a crappy place. It’s like trying to set up a city on a beach. There’s no infrastructure, there’s no sewage, there’s no water. None of those things exist, and there’s already 450,000 people in that general area. It is crowded.

The crossings have been closed for several days now. How has that impacted aid distribution?

First and foremost: fuel shipments. Everything we do starts with fuel. It runs generators for the hospital for the sewage, pumping for water generation and distribution, solid waste management, food aid, the cross border operation — everything. As of today, we’re down to no fuel. We’re basically out. We’ve kept enough to meet the minimum security standards we have to meet for the U.N. so we can continue to stay here. But we’re down to that level. Some hospitals will start shutting down their generators in three days if we don’t get fuel in.

In terms of food, we will start running out of some stuff on Friday.

I don’t think there’s pockets of starvation in the south, but there certainly are pockets of hunger. And even though there’s no starvation, there could be famine-like conditions. For 300,000 people, you probably need a minimum of 30 trips a day every day to sustain the population. In April, that would be 900 trucks. We got in 185.

Are Israeli officials telling you of any plans to reopen the crossings?

We got a call from Israel last night, and they said they wanted to reopen the [Kerem Shalom] crossing. I said, “That’s great but we need to do an assessment first, taking unexploded ordnance experts and security and logistic people down and look at the state of things and whether or not it is conducive to us restarting the operation.” The transshipment area — it is all looted, destroyed. There’s basically nothing left. And on top of that there’s a battalion of tanks parked in that area right now. So we can make it work, but we would have to do coordination through, basically, an active operation.

At the Rafah crossing, there’s nobody there. The passenger terminal that exists there, and in the South seems to be in perfectly good shape, but there’s nobody there. Because it was all a de facto authority people that ran it, and they’ve all been displaced.


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How long do you think it will take to open up the Rafah border at this point?

Thirty-six hours.

What about fighting on the ground in Rafah? Is it still going on?

Even an hour ago I could hear stuff. I haven’t for about an hour, but it was pretty active today. The other part of all this is anywhere there’s a concentration of IDF — it becomes a target. So every crossing today was hit by something. There is a more robust IDF presence now. There’s two brigades, one’s a specialist in tunnels and the other one were the perpetrators of the [World Central Kitchen] incident. Those are the two brigades operating now and in South Rafa.

Two dozen have been killed in the last 24 hours, including seven children.

What’s the general mood in the city now where you are?

Despondent is the best word. They went from thinking there was a cease-fire to what could be the start of something Rafah. So people are scared, anxious, despondent, depressed. Pick your negative adjective.

We’re going to stay and deliver. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not evacuating, we’re not moving. We’re not leaving. We’ll be here. As long as there’s a need.