RAFA (Ar. Rafaḥ ; Heb. Rafi'ah ), town, near the Mediterranean coast, 22 mi. (35 km.) S. of Gaza. Rafa is first mentioned in an inscription of the pharaoh Seti i (c. 1300 b.c.e.) as Rph; it also appears in other Egyptian sources, in Papyrus Anastasi i and in the inscription of Shishak. As a border town on the way to Egypt and a point of sharp transition from desert to cultivated land, it is frequently referred to as the site of conflicts between the armies of Egypt and its neighbors. In 721 b.c.e. Sargon of Assyria defeated at Rapihu (Rafa) Sibʾe of Egypt and Hanno of Gaza; the Assyrians burned the city and deported 9,033 inhabitants. Rafa does not appear in the Bible; the Targums (on Deut. 2:23) identify it with Hazerim. It was the center of important operations in the Hellenistic period during the wars of the Diadochi. Antigonus attacked it in 306 b.c.e. and in 217 b.c.e. Antiochus iii of Syria was defeated there by the army of Ptolemy v of Egypt (Polybius 5:82–86). The town was conquered by Alexander Yannai and held by the Hasmoneans until it was rebuilt in the time of Pompey and Gabinius; the latter seems to have done the actual work of restoration for the era of the town dates from 57 b.c.e. Rafa is mentioned in Strabo (16:2, 31), the Itinerarium Antonini, and is depicted on the Madaba Map. It was the seat of worship of Dionysius and Isis (Papyrus Oxyrrhynchus, 1380). It was the seat of an Episcopal see in the fifth-sixth centuries. A Jewish community settled there in the geonic period; it flourished in the ninth to tenth centuries and again in the 12th, although in the 11th century it suffered a decline and in 1080 the Jews of Rafa had to flee to Ashkelon. A Samaritan community also lived there at this period. Like most cities of southern Ereẓ Israel, ancient Rafa had a landing place on the coast (now Tell Rafāḥ), while the main city was inland.
Between 1905 and 1913 Ereẓ Israel Jews and Zionist groups in Central and Eastern Europe made repeated but futile attempts to buy land and establish settlements in the area. The town was reestablished in the 1920s under the British Mandate, and built for the most part on the Palestinian side but also on the Egyptian side of the border. Rafa's population grew around the time of World War ii, when the British army established large military camps there, providing the Arab inhabitants with employment. In the late 1940s, before the *War of Independence, members and leaders of Jewish settlements, *Haganah, *Irgun Ẓeva'i Le'ummi, and the yishuv were detained in British detention camps at Rafa. After the battles of 1948 Arab refugees settled in the former British camps at Rafa, which was under Egyptian administration in the *Gaza Strip. Taken by Israel forces in the Sinai Campaign (1956), Rafa was evacuated by them in March 1957. During the *Six-Day War, on June 5, 1967, Israel again took the town. In 1931 the town had 1,400 inhabitants, in 1945 2,500, and according to the Israel census of the fall of 1967, 49,812, almost all Muslim Arabs, 39,000 of whom lived in refugee camps. In 1971 many inhabitants worked as farm laborers and in small trades, but the percentage of those subsisting on relief was particularly high. After the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, the town was handed over to the Palestinian Authority.
J. Mann, The Jews in Egypt, 2 (1922), 71–72; S. Klein (ed.), Sefer ha-Yishuv (1939), s.v.; Abel, in: rb, 49 (1940), 73ff. add. bibliography: Y. Tsafrir, L. Di Segni, and J. Green, Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea – Palaestina. Maps and Gazetteer. (1994), 212, s.v. "Raphia."