Less than two weeks after bombs began raining down on the Gaza Strip, Ghada al-Kurd arrived in the southern city of Khan Younis. She had already been displaced three times, and hoped it would be her final journey to safety.
But three months later, Israeli forces advanced south. Ms. al-Kurd, 37, speaking by telephone, said she, her sister, brother-in-law, and four nieces and nephews abandoned the tent they had been sharing “without taking anything with us,” and headed to Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city.
Many of the roughly 1.7 million Gazans that U.N. agencies say have been displaced by Israel’s relentless bombardment and ground invasion have fled repeatedly over the course of a war that had now entered its fifth month. And Ms. al-Kurd’s family members number among more than a million people who have crowded into Rafah, only to hear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Israeli military on Friday to draw up plans to evacuate “combat zones” in the city in advance of an expected ground offensive.
The order, which set off international alarm, is forcing the displaced people sheltering there, along with more than 200,000 of Rafah’s citizens, to weigh their next move.
“I regret leaving Gaza City,” said Ms. al-Kurd, whose two daughters stayed behind in the north with their father. “If I stayed home it would have been better than all the suffering and humiliation of displacement, because every time you flee to a new place you have to start all over again.”
If Israel allows it and the roads open, she said, she will immediately go back to Gaza City, “and that will be my final time fleeing.”
Many others now in Rafah also tell of repeated displacement. Talaat al-Qaisi said he and his wife had just finished furnishing their new apartment, in the upscale Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City, when their building was bombed on Oct. 10, just days after the Hamas-led attacks on Israel that set off the war.
The family escaped just in time, after seeing neighbors running from their own homes. “We barely got out of the building when the bombing began on our street,” Mr. al-Qaisi said, speaking by telephone.
They sheltered at a nearby church, but on Oct. 13, Israel ordered residents in the north to evacuate. Mr. al-Qaisi and his son walked for more than four hours to his sister’s apartment in Rafah and sent a car for his wife, who was ill, and the rest of the family. All 10 members of the family, including his 7-month-old grandson, are staying in a tiny one-room apartment in Rafah, he said.
Asked what he would do next, he said: “Planning anything has become useless and pointless,” adding, “The situation keeps exceeding our previous predictions” of how much worse it can get.
Mr. al-Qaisi predicted complete chaos if Israeli forces moved into Rafah, with people likely to start running in all directions, not knowing where to head.
“I will move with the crowds, what else can I do? We have nowhere else to go,” he said. “Other people I spoke to told me that they refuse to flee again even if that means dying in their shelters.”
Mohammed al-Baradie, 24, said the threat of an Israeli advance on Rafah had persuaded him to move again, in his fourth displacement. But his plan to flee to Nuseirat, in central Gaza, was upended by heavy shelling