Gazans flee Rafah as Israel pushes its war with Hamas – and the U.S. and others push for an endgame

Tel Aviv — Nearly 360,000 people had fled the Gaza Strip’s southernmost city of Rafah by Monday, according to the United Nations, in an exodus that tripled in size over just a few days. The Israel Defense Forces sparked the upheaval late last week, issuing evacuation orders by text messages and fliers dropped from the sky to people in the city’s eastern half.

Since then, IDF forces have pushed across the southern part of the Palestinian territory in what the military says are limited and precise attacks targeting Hamas militants and infrastructure.

The U.S. has repeatedly warned Israel against launching a major military ground operation in Rafah, fearing mass casualties. The White House, in tandem with other countries, has also increased pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to form a plan to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, and for the so-called “day after,” to figure out who or what will replace Hamas as Gaza’s governing body.

Pressure mounts on Netanyahu

The Biden administration cautioned again over the weekend that Israel needs an exit plan for the war, and that even if Hamas can be defeated, without a viable alternative to govern Gaza, the group long designated by both Israel and the U.S. as a terrorist organization could stage a comeback.

Blinken says U.S. won’t back Rafah incursion without “credible plan” to protect civilians


“You’re going to have a vacuum, and a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos, by anarchy and, ultimately, by Hamas again,” Blinken told CBS’ “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan on Sunday. He stressed that the U.S. “will not support” an Israeli military operation in Rafah without a “credible plan to protect civilians.”

Very public cracks are now appearing between Israel’s government and its military, meanwhile. Senior military officials have started openly demanding that Netanyahu decide what will replace Hamas to run Gaza — saying if that isn’t determined, Israeli forces could wind up stuck there.

Many Israeli troops’ families have similar concerns. Over the weekend, a letter signed by 600 family members of current IDF soldiers called on Netanyahu’s government to forego a Rafah ground assault, warning that it “could be no less than a death trap.”

“Any reasonable person understands that when they have been announcing and warning for months about entering Rafah, there are those who are working to prepare the ground and harm the forces there,” the families warned in the letter.

The Biden administration has made it clear it will not supply weapons for what it considers an ill-advised full-scale military operation in Rafah, but Netanyahu has refused to back down from his vow to carry out that assault, saying there are several Hamas battalions holed up in the city.

In an overnight phone call, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant gave U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken an update on the war, including on “the precise operation in the Rafah area against remaining Hamas battalions,” according to a statement from Gallant’s office.

Gazans forced to flee again and again

In the southeast corner of Rafah, shattered neighborhoods were eerily quiet on Monday morning — abandoned after Israel’s warnings of an imminent advance.

Hundreds of thousands of people who’d fled to the city on previous Israeli orders have fled once again, this time to the west of Gaza, to the coastal area of al-Mawasi, which Israel has made into a sprawling camp for the displaced.

Palestinians carry their belongings as they prepare to flee Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 13, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

AFP via Getty

It may be out of the line of fire for now, but it is far from a safe refuge as thousands of families are exposed to the elements in tents pitched across a barren stretch of coastline.

Displaced mom who lost 6 of her 7 children “still in shock” 

Just to the north, in a makeshift camp in Deir al Balah, Jamila Abu Jebara told CBS News she lost virtually her entire family to an overnight Israeli airstrike exactly seven months ago. Her husband and six of her seven children were killed. Neighbors were only able to pull her and her 10-year-old daughter Dema from the wreckage of their home. 

“My 8-year-old son’s body is still under the rubble,” she said. “I’m waiting for a cease-fire to pull him out.”

Beyond that, the now-single mother said she had no plans for the future, “because I am still in shock.”

“As a mother, I need to stay strong for my daughter Dema, so I can take care of her and build her future. She is with me constantly, and I don’t like her to go anywhere without me. She even sleeps with me.”

Dema Abu Jebara, 10, sits next to her mother Jamila (center) as they speak with CBS News in a makeshift camp for displaced Palestinians in Deir al Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, May 12, 2024. 

CBS News

“I wish this war would end,” her daughter Dema told CBS News.

Many Israelis have the same wish. On Sunday, as Israel marked its Memorial Day, the country mourned its dead soldiers and the roughly 1,200 victims of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack, which sparked the current war.

But as dozens of families push Netanyahu to agree to a deal to bring home the roughly 100 Israelis still believed to be held hostage by Hamas or other groups in Gaza, the prime minister’s remarks at a memorial service were unequivocal.

“We will keep going until victory,” he said, vowing to complete his stated mission to “destroy Hamas.”

At the camp in Deir al Balah, Abu Jebara told CBS News she wished she could have protected her six children from Israel’s attacks.

“I wish I’d died and they had lived,” she said, adding an appeal as Americans marked Mother’s Day: 

“My message to any mother: See our lives and see our sorrows. I’m one of countless mothers who have lost.”

CBS News’ Tucker Reals contributed to this report.

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