Displaced Palestinian children

Displaced Palestinian children are pictured inside a makeshift tent in Rafah, Gaza on March 13, 2024.

(Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

Aid Groups Condemn IDF 'Humanitarian Islands' Plan for Rafah Civilians

"There is nothing humanitarian about Israel's proposal to push civilians into 'humanitarian islands' in Gaza."

Aid groups reacted with alarm Thursday to the Israeli military's stated plan to transfer much of the population of Rafah—a small city in southern Gaza that's currently packed with more than 1.5 million people—to so-called "humanitarian islands" in the central part of the enclave.

William Bell, the head of Middle East policy and advocacy at Christian Aid, called the proposal "a preposterous idea" that the international community must reject in favor of an immediate, permanent cease-fire and a massive surge of humanitarian assistance.

"The half-baked plan to force more than a million displaced civilians out of Rafah into so-called 'humanitarian islands' further north beggars belief," said Bell. "And the suggestion that they will be safe simply cannot be given credence."

"How long will it take to build and equip these islands? And how much longer to get people to them?" Bell asked. "With Gaza on the brink of famine, children dying of malnutrition, and desperate families reportedly eating grass to survive, men, women, and children need lifesaving aid now."

"The past five months have taught us that places labeled 'safe zones' in Gaza quickly become death zones."

During a news briefing on Wednesday, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Daniel Hagari said the planned humanitarian zones would be created in concert "with the international community," but he did not provide specifics or a timeline.

Ahead of a planned ground invasion of Rafah, Hagari said the IDF intends to direct a "significant" portion of the city's population—most of which is living in makeshift tents—to designated areas in central Gaza, where he claimed they would be provided with temporary housing, food, and other necessities that Israel has systematically restricted.

Given that Rafah was once considered a relatively safe area for Palestinians displaced by Israel's assault and is currently under IDF bombardment, aid campaigners expressed deep skepticism that the plan outlined by Hagari is in any way viable or humane.

"There is nothing humanitarian about Israel's proposal to push civilians into 'humanitarian islands' in Gaza," said Melanie Ward, CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians. "They are dangerous and must be stopped. The past five months have taught us that places labeled 'safe zones' in Gaza quickly become death zones."

An investigation published Wednesday by the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture shows how the Israeli military has used supposed humanitarian measures to advance its assault on Gaza's civilian population.

The investigation details the IDF's repeated bombardment of so-called "safe zones" to which it has instructed desperate Gazans to flee and makes the case that Israel's evacuation orders have functioned "as a tool of mass displacement, pushing civilians into unlivable areas that later come under attack."

"Military evacuation of civilian populations is only legal under select, rare circumstances, and requires that displaced civilians be temporarily relocated to areas safe from conflict and with access to fundamental provisions for their safety and survival," the Forensic Architecture analysis said. "Where Israel's evacuation orders might individually be framed as humanitarian in nature, in fact when closely analyzed and considered over time, they reveal patterns of systematic mass displacement, with Palestinians deliberately and repeatedly being expelled from one unsafe and under-resourced location to another."

"A ground invasion in Rafah," the research firm argued, "would exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation for the 1.5 million displaced Palestinians taking refuge there."

In an interview this past weekend, U.S. President Joe Biden said that an IDF incursion into Rafah would cross a "red line"—a remark that the White House has since tried to walk back after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed the planned assault would go ahead.

Asked about Israel's "humanitarian islands" proposal on Thursday, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said, "We can't confirm that that is in fact a plan that they have."

"Our position has not changed," Kirby said of a potential Rafah invasion. "We do not want to see large-scale operations in Rafah... unless there is [a] legitimate, executable plan to provide for the safety and security of the civilians that are there."

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