Nowhere safe in Gaza

How Israeli attacks have pushed more than 1.5 million people into Rafah

Since Israel began its assault on Gaza, almost all the Palestinians living there have fled their homes in search of safety.

Those who fled say that nowhere is safe in Gaza and that Israeli bombing has followed them wherever they go.

In this story, Al Jazeera visualises the movement of more than two million people in Gaza and captures firsthand accounts of their struggles and resilience.

What displacing more than
two million people looks like

The infographic below presents a timeline tracking the number of internally displaced people in shelters across Gaza’s five governorates from October 7 to January 14.

In just the first five days, more than 400,000 people had already fled in fear and been made homeless. According to OCHA records, at least 200,000 people sought shelter in some 110 shelters run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and the government throughout Gaza, while others stayed with friends or family.

One of these people was Arifa Abu Laila, 51, who fled with her family on foot to an UNRWA school in the centre of Gaza City.

Arifa describes her experience and living conditions below.

“The Israelis kept sending air strikes all around us and we lost each other while trying to escape.” - Arifa Abu Laila

1.1 million people ordered to move south

On October 12, the Israeli military dropped leaflets ordering everyone north of Wadi Gaza, in the centre of the besieged strip, to move south within 24 hours.

“This evacuation is for your own safety. You will be able to return to Gaza City only when another announcement permitting it is made. Do not approach the area of the security fence with the State of Israel,” an Israeli military statement said.

The United Nations warned that such a movement couldn't take place without devastating humanitarian consequences.

As the news of the order spread, confusion and fear started spreading among residents of the besieged enclave. [Ahmed Zakot/Reuters]

Mosques and churches bombed

By October 25 - 19 days into the assault - Israeli attacks had killed at least 7,028 people, including 2,913 children, in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Three of those children killed were Suhail, Jouly and Majd al-Souri, who had taken shelter in the Church of Saint Porphyrius, thinking it was safe.

Saint Porphyrius in Gaza’s Old City is considered the third-oldest church in the world. Built in 425 CE, it offered sanctuary to many Christian and Muslim residents of Gaza.

“Those are my three children. I lost them to the Israeli aggression against Gaza. They bombed my angels and killed them without warning." - Grief-stricken Palestinian father

In the first three weeks, at least one in every three people in Gaza, or 670,000 people, was sheltering in some 220 shelters across the 365sq km (141sq miles) strip.

October 25, 2023


displaced people across
the Gaza Strip

Satellite imagery and drone footage captured during the first three weeks of the war showed entire neighbourhoods in northern Gaza completely flattened.

Israel said it struck at least 12,000 targets from October 7 to November 1, marking one of the most intense bombing campaigns in recent history.

Drone footage shows the remains of a street in the Rimal neighbourhood in Gaza City, October 21, 2023 [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Fleeing on foot

By November 4, an estimated 800,000 to a million people had moved to the south of the Gaza Strip.

With no fuel allowed into Gaza, many of those people were forced to flee on foot with their arms up while holding their IDs and white flags.

Multiple testimonies from those who made the journey said they saw dead bodies along the road, which the Israeli military had designated a “safe route”.

“You see their tanks and soldiers. People hold up their IDs, their hands and white flags so they can enter through this safe route, which is not a safe route at all.” - Mariam Abu Dagga

Memories of the Nakba

More than 70 percent of Gaza’s population - some 1.7 million people - are refugees.

Most of them lived in or near Gaza’s eight refugee camps. These camps were established in the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes by Zionist militias.

This 90-year-old Palestinian woman, who was 15 when she survived the Nakba, had to walk 5km (3 miles) to get from Gaza City to Deir el-Balah in the south.

Weeklong truce

On November 22, Israel and Hamas reached an agreement providing a four-day pause in fighting, which was later extended by an additional three days.

The deal, mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the United States, allowed for the release of 50 captives held in Gaza in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinian women and children in Israeli detention.

During that time, several Palestinians who attempted to return to their homes in northern Gaza were fired upon by Israeli forces.

“Where can people go? Many have been displaced, and the situation is extremely dire. Children are sick, all coughing and sneezing. I can't find the words” - Salma Qassem

Northern Gaza decimated

Up to 65 percent of buildings in North Gaza and 63 percent in Gaza City had been damaged between October 7 and November 29, according to satellite image analysis based on Sentinel-1 radar data by researchers Corey Scher of CUNY Graduate Center and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University.

The number of displaced people living in shelters had also crossed 1.37 million with living conditions rapidly deteriorating.

At the time, OCHA reported that the UNRWA shelters were overcrowded and had poor sanitary conditions, leading to outbreaks of infections and diseases.

November 29, 2023


displaced people across
the Gaza Strip

Israel expands operations in the south

By early December, Israel’s military had expanded its ground operation into Khan Younis in the south, pushing hundreds of thousands of people to move once again.

With a lack of shelters, many people had no other choice but to sleep on the streets.

“We want to live, we want to live, where will they take us?” - Ismail Obaid

Nowhere is safe

On December 4, the Israeli army published a map online that divided the besieged enclave into more than 600 numbered zones.

However, with limited electricity and internet, many were not able to access evacuation details available via a QR code on leaflets dropped by the Israeli army.

On December 5, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths echoed what so many in Gaza were saying: “Nowhere is safe in Gaza. Not hospitals, not shelters, not refugee camps. No one is safe. Not children. Not health workers. Not humanitarians. Such blatant disregard for basic humanity must stop. The fighting must stop.”

Gaza’s residents reported that leaflets distributed ordering evacuations were inconsistent with online warnings, leading to confusion.

“They said this is a safe corridor for us to evacuate so you can start killing us on the streets! You told us to leave through this street.” - Displaced Palestinian man

Tents bombed

Even temporary shelters such as tents have not been spared from Israeli bombardment.

Abu Jamal Khalaf recalls an Israeli attack on his family’s tent in central Gaza that killed three of his children after they were displaced from the north.

“They said this was the safest area. We were displaced from Gaza. We left for the kids. God knows I'd never leave my house but to protect the kids.” - Abu Jamal Khalaf

Pushing 1.8m people into al-Mawasi

As the Israeli military stepped up its bombing of southern Gaza, it instructed residents of Gaza to evacuate to a part of the coastal Bedouin town of al-Mawasi.

Al-Mawasi is a small, desolate strip of land – about 1km (0.6 miles) wide and 14km (8.7 miles) long – with little to no basic services.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the Israeli proposal a recipe for disaster, saying: “Attempting to cram so many people into such a small area with such little infrastructure or services will significantly increase risks to health for people who are already on the brink.”

Satellite images, taken less than one month apart, show the rapid construction of thousands of tents in and around al-Mawasi.
Drone footage taken in mid-February shows thousands of displaced Palestinians' tents in Rafah [Sanad /Al Jazeera]

Displaced over and over again

Many Palestinians have found themselves fleeing for the third or fourth time, with some, like 50-year-old Seham al-Athamneh, having fled up to eight times.

Seham, who fled with her grandchildren, describes how degrading and exhausting it is to pack up whatever belongings you have while trying to provide safety and shelter for her grandchildren.

She says she’s running out of options for what to do or where to go.

“They didn't leave a place that they didn't bomb or leave any place we can safely shelter in. Humiliation. You have no idea how degrading and tiring our displacement has been.” - Seham Al-Athamneh