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Palestinians cling to life in Rafah, a town likely to be Israel’s next focus in the war on Hamas

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RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — In the narrow crevices between the tents that crowd nearly every inch of the southern Gaza town of Rafah, Palestinians cling to life amid the grinding war with Israel.

A barefoot boy wears a pot on his head and beams a smile. A child lugs a jerry can half his size full of water. Men sit at half-empty tables selling canned goods. A tapestry of laundry hangs from every line.

Palestinians buy goods at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians buy goods at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The world’s gaze is on Rafah, the once-sleepy town along the Egyptian border that is likely Israel’s next focus in its fight against Hamas.

Rafah has swelled in size in recent weeks. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have splayed out across the town in tents or at the homes of friends or relatives. The estimated 1.5 million people sheltering there — more than half of Gaza’s population — have nowhere to flee in the face of an offensive that has leveled large swaths of the urban landscape in the rest of the territory.

U.N. officials warn that an attack on Rafah will be catastrophic, with more than 600,000 children in the path of an assault. A move on the town and surrounding area also could cause the collapse of the humanitarian aid system struggling to keep Gaza’s population alive. Israel’s Western allies have also expressed concern.

Palestinians crowd a market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians crowd a market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Israel says it must take Rafah to ensure Hamas’ destruction and to free hostages held by the militants.

Food, like everywhere in the Gaza Strip, is scarce. Throngs of people crowd around a bakery, hoping for a few pitas to feed their families. Others bake their own in mud stoves with whatever flour they could get. One child, seated on an older child’s shoulders, reveled in the first bite of the fluffy bread.

The streets with no tents are packed with crowds of Palestinians hustling to sustain their families.

The mundane drumbeat of life continues in some places. A boy gets a haircut. A girl dons an oversized sheer pink floral dress. Women and a child avoid a large puddle near a mass of tents.

And in a surreal snapshot of joy, children spin around on a makeshift, manually operated Ferris wheel, turning and turning as the war — now in its fifth month — rolls on.

A Palestinian stands on top of a mosque destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

A Palestinian stands on top of a mosque destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians crowd at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians crowd at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk at the makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk at the makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians buy goods at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians buy goods at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

A child looks through a broken window in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

A child looks through a broken window in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip sit by a fire at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip sit by a fire at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians walk through a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians walk through a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinian kids displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip play at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinian kids displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip play at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

A Palestinian child displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip makes tea at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

A Palestinian child displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip makes tea at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians line up for free food in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians line up for free food in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians bake bread on a street in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians bake bread on a street in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

A Palestinian child displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip carries jerry cans at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

A Palestinian child displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip carries jerry cans at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians line up for free food in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians line up for free food in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a flooded makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a flooded makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

A view of a makeshift tent camp for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman7

A view of a makeshift tent camp for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman7

Palestinians sell canning in a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians sell canning in a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians buy goods at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians buy goods at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip queue for water at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip queue for water at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians crowd at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians crowd at a street market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel’s next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. International aid agencies say Gaza is suffering from shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies as a result of the war between Israel and Hamas. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. International aid agencies say Gaza is suffering from shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies as a result of the war between Israel and Hamas. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

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