Israeli tanks push deeper into Rafah; battles rage in northern Gaza

  • World
  • Wednesday, 15 May 2024

CAIRO (Reuters): Israeli tanks pushed deeper into Rafah on Tuesday (May 14), reaching some residential areas of the southern Gazan border city where more than a million people had sought shelter, and its forces pounded the enclave's north in some of the fiercest attacks in months.

Israel's international allies and aid groups have repeatedly warned against a ground incursion into Rafah, where many Palestinians fled and Israel says four Hamas battalions are holed up. Israel says it must root out the remaining fighters.

The White House said U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan will visit Israel and Saudi Arabia this weekend. The Biden administration declined to comment on a report by Axios that Israel agreed not to expand its Rafah operation significantly before Sullivan's visit.

A U.S. official who declined to be identified told Reuters that Israel promised not to make a major move in Rafah without advising Washington.

Israeli spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in a briefing that Israeli forces had killed about 100 militant fighters, located 10 tunnel routes and found many weapons in Rafah since the start of the operation a week ago.

Fighting has intensified elsewhere across the Gaza Strip in recent days, including in the north, with the Israeli military returning to areas where it had claimed to have already dismantled Hamas. The clashes on Tuesday were the fiercest in months, residents and militant sources said.

"We are operating with determination in all three parts of the Gaza Strip. Forces from the air, land and sea are simultaneously striking terrorist targets," Hagari said, referring to the enclave's north, centre and south.

The Palestinian death toll in the war has now surpassed 35,000, according to Gaza health officials, whose figures do not differentiate between civilians and fighters. They said that 82 Palestinians had been killed in the past 24 hours, the highest death toll in a single day in many weeks.

Fierce gun battles raged late on Tuesday in northern Gaza's Jabalia, a sprawling refugee camp built for displaced Palestinians 75 years ago. "Many people are being trapped in their houses," Nasser, 57, a father of six, said by phone.

Israel killed about 80 militant fighters and destroyed rocket launchers and weapons manufacturing facilities in the heart of Jabalia on Tuesday, Hagari said. He said 13 Israeli soldiers were injured on Tuesday, four seriously.

In Gaza City, also in the enclave's north, an Israeli air strike on a house in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood killed four people and wounded several others late on Tuesday, medics said.

In the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, Israeli bulldozers demolished houses to make a new road for tanks. The Israeli military said it had eliminated about 150 fighters and destroyed 80 structures used by Hamas there.

With fighting intensifying, Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas, mediated by his country and Egypt, were at a stalemate.

Nowhere is safe now

U.S. President Joe Biden has urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to invade Rafah without safeguards for civilians and last week delayed a shipment of large bombs to Israel.

The U.S. State Department did, however, move a $1bil package of weapons aid for Israel into the congressional review process, two U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned Israel's escalation in Rafah and Hamas' indiscriminate firing of rockets there, his spokesperson said on Tuesday.

"Civilians must be respected and protected at all times, in Rafah and elsewhere in Gaza. For people in Gaza, nowhere is safe now," Stephane Dujarric said, adding that Guterres again called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

In Rafah in southern Gaza, Palestinian residents saw smoke billowing above eastern districts of the city and heard explosions after Israel bombarded a cluster of houses.

Hamas' armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, said it destroyed an Israeli troop carrier in the eastern Al-Salam district, killing some crew members and wounding others.

Israel has ordered civilians to evacuate parts of Rafah, and UNRWA, the main United Nations aid agency in Gaza, estimates some 450,000 people have fled the city since May 6. More than a million civilians had sought refuge there.

They are moving to places such as Al-Mawasi, a sandy coastal strip that aid agencies say lacks sanitary and other facilities to host displaced people.

Much of Gaza's population is on the brink of famine, the U.N. says, and desperate for fuel and other essential supplies such as medicine. Relief organisations, the U.N. and major powers such as the U.S. have urged Israel to facilitate a massive influx of aid.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Tuesday that Egypt must be "persuaded" to reopen the Rafah border crossing to "allow the continued delivery of international humanitarian aid" into Gaza.

His comment prompted an angry response from Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who said in a statement that Israel's seizure of the Rafah crossing and its military operations in the area were the main obstacles to aid entering Gaza.

Israel told merchants in Gaza to retrieve commercial goods that had been stuck at the Kerem Shalom border crossing in Israel since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, residents and Palestinian media said.

Their trucks entered Rafah on Tuesday through a gate on the border line between Gaza and Egypt where Israeli tanks have been stationed, the first such supply during Israel’s Gaza ground offensive in eastern Rafah. Israel did not comment.

The World Court will hold hearings this week on a South African request for new emergency measures against Israel over the Rafah incursion. Israel, which has said South Africa's accusations of genocide are baseless, will present its view to the court on Friday.

Israel launched its Gaza operation after an attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas-led gunmen who killed some 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

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