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Palestinian Tent Camps Expand As the Israel-Hamas War Intensifies in Gaza

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Recent satellite imagery shows an influx of displaced Palestinians into Rafah, the Gaza Strip’s southernmost region, where about 1.25 million people are now living in squalid, cramped conditions.

This increase is visible in commercially available satellite imagery from Planet Labs that was taken over the past two months. It reveals the scale of the dire humanitarian crisis in Rafah that has worsened as the Israeli offensive against Hamas has intensified in central and southern Gaza.

Early in the war, official shelters, like this U.N. logistics base, became overcrowded, and tents were set up in their immediate area.

A satellite image from Nov. 10 showing a portion of western Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Five areas are highlighted showing where tents are visible. Among them are schools used as shelters and a U.N. logistics base.

By early December, large numbers of tents began popping up around shelters.

A satellite image from Dec. 3 showing the same area as the first image. There has been an expansion to the area of visible tents, mostly limited to the areas around the schools and the logistics base.

The number of tents and makeshift structures sharply increased across this area of Rafah after Israel’s repeated orders to evacuate large portions of central and southern Gaza in December.

A satellite image from Dec. 31 showing the same area as the first image. Tents now fill a majority of the image.

As of Sunday, even more tents had appeared, filling up even more available space.

A satellite image from Jan. 14 showing the same area as the first image. The number and extent of tents has visibility increased from the December imagery.

Source: Satellite images by Planet Labs

The part of northwest Rafah in the image above has become the primary area for new impromptu encampments to house displaced Gazans. Yet tents are also visible in areas across Rafah’s approximately 25 square miles.

With little space available to shelter indoors, “Rafah has become a city covered with plastic sheeting,” said Juliette Touma, the director of communications for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

A tent camp in Rafah.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

The arrival of displaced people in Rafah in recent weeks has led to the spread of tent camps farther away from established shelters. These areas come with challenges like a lack of electricity, clean water, bathrooms and other basics, as well as less access to the limited aid trickling into Rafah, said Shaina Low, a communications adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“Because these are informal camps without official leadership or representation, aid agencies have no one to coordinate distribution with, forcing those seeking assistance to go to established sites to receive aid,” Ms. Low said.

While aid groups like the Norwegian Refugee Council have provided some displaced people with tents, many people have been forced to build their own. Thousands more have struggled without any kind of shelter.

“Streets and open spaces are now filled with homemade structures and tents,” Ms. Low said. “Makeshift shelters constructed from salvaged materials are unable to withstand increasingly cold, wet and windy winter weather.”

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs taken on Sunday shows the rapid expansion of one of these tent camps in an open area along the border between Gaza and Egypt that was empty in early December.

Tent camps expand near Egypt’s border

Source: Satellite images by Planet Labs

Those staying in official shelters are considered somewhat safer from Israeli airstrikes than people living in makeshift tent camps. Shelters for displaced people are protected under humanitarian law, according to U.N. officials. That said, at least 330 displaced people staying in U.N. shelters across the Gaza Strip have been killed since the war began on Oct. 7, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Since Dec. 1, the Israeli military has ordered civilians to evacuate from large swaths of the central and southern regions of Deir al Balah and Khan Younis, areas that were sheltering more than 550,000 internally displaced people and were home to over one million people before the war, according to the United Nations.

Many of these displaced people have fled to Rafah. By mid-December, Rafah was already estimated to be sheltering over a million people and had become Gaza’s most densely populated area, with a roughly four-fold increase in population compared with before the war. With at least 100,000 additional people having poured in, the region is struggling to meet the massive humanitarian need.

“Rafah is one of the poorest parts of Gaza,” Ms. Touma said. “The infrastructure is not at all suitable to absorb this huge influx.”

A tent camp in Rafah near the Gaza-Egypt border.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Displaced people setting up a tent near the border.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

The number of people registered at shelters in Rafah was 978,000 as of Jan. 14, up from 705,000 on Dec. 25 and 463,000 on Dec. 1, according to U.N. data. Hundreds of thousands of additional people are also estimated to be staying in the region unregistered with the shelter system.

Estimated number of displaced people registered at shelters in each region

Source: U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs via HDX

Notes: Numbers include people registered at government and U.N. shelters. Estimates for Deir al Balah are not updated daily.

Many within Gaza have been displaced multiple times since the onset of Israel’s bombing campaign and ground invasion in response to Hamas’s attack in Israel in October. Relief officials say that repeated displacements make it difficult to accurately track the movement of people over time.

With a vast majority of Gaza’s population displaced, aid groups and the U.N. have been struggling to keep up with the staggering demand for help in Rafah and across the Gaza Strip. Even when aid is available, relief officials say that its delivery has been impeded by exhaustive inspections by Israeli authorities and that aid trucks sometimes come under fire from Israeli forces.

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