Tens of thousands of people have fled since an Israeli call this week to evacuate part of the southern Gazan city of Rafah, the United Nations said on Thursday, as Israeli airstrikes intensify and fears grow that an incursion by Israeli ground forces to take over a border crossing could lead to a full-scale invasion.

The mass flight from the east of the city, a major hub for people displaced from their homes along Gaza’s border with Egypt, is just the latest time that people have been forced to flee since Israel launched a war to dismantle Hamas, the armed group that led the deadly attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Louise Wateridge, a spokeswoman for the main U.N. agency that aids Palestinians, UNRWA, said on Thursday that an estimated 79,000 people had left Rafah since Monday. She posted a video on social media of small vans loaded with mattresses driving slowly down a street lined with tents.

“Extreme fear from significant bombardment in Rafah overnight & continuing throughout this morning,” Ms. Wateridge wrote, noting that “those staying collecting water” were “surviving.”

Rafah’s population had increased to more than one million in recent months as people moved south. Hundreds of thousands of people live in tents or makeshift shelters. Residents and aid workers describe grim conditions and severe shortages of food, clean water and access to medical supplies.

Riyad al-Masry, a sign language interpreter, said on Thursday that he and his extended family had decided to evacuate from Rafah because they feared an Israeli advance into the city. He said that he had already moved five times since leaving Gaza City when the war began and described the prospect of a sixth upheaval to another tented camp as “torture beyond torture.”


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