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As displaced Palestinians flee to Gaza-Egypt border demilitarized zone, Israel says it "must be in our hands"

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On the back of a small truck parked along Gaza's southern border with Egypt, two families were crammed into an open-top shipping container. Originally from Beit Lahia in the north of Gaza, Mariam Abu Eida and her family fled to the south at the explicit urgence of the Israel Defense Forces to escape the fighting amid the IDF's offensive against Hamas.

"When we came, everybody else built tents, but we had nothing to build them with," Mariam told CBS News. "We put some plastic sheets over some wooden panels, but the place is still freezing."

"We couldn't find anywhere else to stay. There are tents everywhere and it's very crowded out there," she said.

Palestinian Mariam Abu Eida leads members of her family into the truck they're using as a shelter in the demilitarized zone known as the Philadelphi Corridor along the southern Gaza border with Egypt, Jan. 17, 2024. CBS News

They've made their makeshift home in the Rafah region, along the border with Egypt. A previously barren strip of land on the Gaza side, all along the nine-mile frontier, has become a new settlement of tents and makeshift campsites, where many of the displaced Palestinians have been forced to seek shelter in squalid conditions.

According to the United Nations, an estimated 1.7 million of Gaza's roughly 2.3 million people had been displaced as of Jan. 20. As Israel's offensive has pushed further south, Rafah has become the main refuge for an estimated one million of those displaced people. With the city of Rafah and the existing camps and shelters in the area already overwhelmed, many have moved into a barren corridor that hugs the physical barrier between Gaza and Egypt.

When CBS News visited, there was little in the way of international assistance available to the people cowering in the so-called Philadelphi Corridor buffer zone, and no reliable assessment of how many were there. The grim conditions, however, were apparent.

Tents and other makeshift shelters set up by displaced Palestinians are seen in the Philadelphi Corridor, a demilitarized zone that extends 100 meters (109 yards) into southern Gaza from the border with Egypt, Jan. 17, 2024. CBS News

"The cold here is unreal," Mariam told CBS News. "When I collect the bedsheets, they're as wet as if you poured water on them."

UNRWA, the U.N. agency tasked with helping Palestinians, has warned repeatedly that many displaced Gazans have no access to food, water, medicine or appropriate shelter. Despite the conditions, the border area with Egypt has been among those least impacted by the fighting in the war sparked by Hamas' brutal Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, and Israeli officials have continued telling civilians to evacuate to the southern Gaza Strip.

Ahmed Salem, executive director of the Egyptian charity the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, told CBS News many of the displaced feel safer along the border as they believe Israel is less likely to bombard the area.

He described desperate scenes at the boundary, with Gazan children begging Egyptian soldiers only a few yards away, but on the other side of the fence, for food and water. The soldiers, Salem said, are under strict orders to not respond to avoid fueling diplomatic tension with Israel.

But even the relative safety offered by the international border has been thrown into question.

The Philadelphi Corridor was established about four decades ago as a 100-meter-wide demilitarized zone all along the Gaza side of the border, as part of an agreement between Israel and Egypt. But in late December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his forces would, at some point during their operations in Gaza, have to occupy and control the corridor.

Part of the Southern District of Israel, political map, with the Gaza Strip

"The Philadelphi Corridor — or to put it more correctly, the southern stoppage point [of the Gaza Strip] — must be in our hands. It must be shut," Netanyahu said during a December news conference.

Israeli officials have claimed that smuggling across that border has provided Gaza's Hamas rulers with weapons and other supplies, which Egypt vehemently denies.

The Head of Egypt's State Information Service (SIS), Diaa Rashwan, said this week that "Egypt is capable of defending its interests and sovereignty over its land and borders and will not leave it in the hands of a group of extremist Israeli leaders who seek to drag the region into a state of conflict and instability."

Palestinian Mariam Abu Eida sits with one of her children as she speaks with CBS News inside the truck her family is using as a shelter in the demilitarized zone known as the Philadelphi Corridor along the southern Gaza border with Egypt, Jan. 17, 2024. CBS News

The suggestion that Israel will occupy the buffer zone now inhabited by so many displaced Palestinians has brought even more anxiety for people like Miriam and her family.

For now, however, with no other real options, Miriam said they would stay put.

"We will wait until they tell us that we have to go," she said. "Then we will leave." 

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