Mitchell Prothero
The National
January 7, 2009 - 1:00am

Israeli planes dropped leaflets over the Rafah refugee camp last night warning residents within two kilometres of the Egyptian border to flee their homes by eight this morning in anticipation of a massive armoured invasion, said residents, who began to leave immediately.

The threat came at about the same time as an announcement that Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials – who do not represent the Hamas militants – appeared to agree to an Egyptian-French proposal for a ceasefire to end the 12-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.

The exact details of the proposed halt to combat have not been made public, but Israeli leaders have insisted that military operations will continue until Hamas and other militants halt their rocket fire into southern Israel. Israel has also demanded assurances that Hamas be unable to rearm its rocket arsenal during any lull in fighting. Hamas has demanded that Israeli forces leave the Gaza Strip and open the beleaguered coastal enclave to normal commercial traffic and civilian access.

Both sides have been under increasing international pressure to resolve the fight, which began when Hamas did not renew a six-month ceasefire and resumed firing rockets into southern Israel. On Dec 27, Israeli planes devastated Hamas targets across the Gaza Strip in a series of assaults that killed hundreds and wounded more than 1,000 people. On Saturday, Israeli troops moved into the Gaza Strip in force, leading to widespread battles in northern Gaza and around Gaza City.

About 300 of the more than 670 Palestinians killed so far have been civilians, according to Palestinian and UN figures. Of those killed, at least 130 are children, 16 and younger, says the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which tracks casualties.

Israel has lost six soldiers since launching a ground offensive on Saturday – four of them in “friendly fire” incidents – and four other Israelis have been killed by rocket fire, three of them civilians, since fighting began.

In an effort to address international criticism about what the UN calls a grave humanitarian disaster with most of Gaza without food, water, electricity or medicines – or the ability to move aid shipments – the Israelis allowed a three-hour halt to its bombardments yesterday for aid shipments and residents to move freely around the Strip in search of food, aid and medicines.

Stores, however, were empty of such necessities.

But even amid signs that the crisis could be resolved imminently, the Israelis told residents of the densely crowded Rafah camp to flee their homes this morning to avoid being caught in a ground offensive. The neighbourhoods described in the leaflets roughly include every home located within two kilometres of the Egyptian border, or about 40 per cent of the camp, which is home to about 150,000 residents.

Because of heavy shelling of the corridor between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, which smugglers have dotted with hundreds of tunnels to smuggle everything from weapons to commercial goods to donkeys, thousands of residents have already fled for central Rafah, filling schools and mosques with terrified families.

But as the new warning began to fall from the sky, tens of thousands more residents began to panic, fleeing their homes for the streets in search of shelter.

“People are screaming and running for the centre of Rafah,” one witness said. “But there is nowhere to go. Tonight they will all have to live on the streets, there is no room for them anywhere.”

One Israeli special forces officer, who cannot be named because his reserve unit was recently mobilised, said the impending operation would be designed to seize complete control of the Egyptian border area.

“They want to hold it in anticipation of an agreement,” he said of the Israeli army plans. “Units will be searching from house to house to destroy every tunnel used by Hamas to resupply and rearm” with supplies.

“If there will be a deal, the IDF wants to make sure that when they leave, something will replace them to prevent the tunnels from being rebuilt,” the officer added. “The problem is that this will cause heavy fighting inside Rafah’s streets and could kill any chance of a ceasefire. But the strategy has always included ending the tunnels, so a ceasefire that doesn’t achieve this is worthless.”

Unlike the northern Gaza, where heavy fighting has hit border villages and Gaza City, Rafah has not seen much fighting, only a series of small tank incursions and the seizure of the abandoned Rafah airport near the border for use as a base by Israeli troops.

Rafah-based militants have told The National they have been under orders to prepare for an incursion but not to engage the Israeli troops until they enter the camp’s narrow streets and crowded ghettos.

Residents began to fear that an operation was coming after Israeli missiles began striking the border area early yesterday morning and continued throughout the day.
“More than 100 missiles fell on the corridor,” said one resident, who asked not to be named. “One after another, they destroyed maybe 14 houses, but the people had already left.”

The residents of the camp have been without food for almost a week. When a small amount of food aid arrived at a warehouse yesterday during the humanitarian ceasefire, more than 4,000 people tried to storm the facility, which was shut after only 15 minutes, according to its owner, Mohammed Abu Taha.

“I only had two other employees,” he said. “People had gone mad with hunger and were beating each other over the small amount of flour we could give. What is happening to our people is terrifying.”


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