Israel sends tanks into Rafah amid Gaza-wide offensive

Nidal al-Mughrabi |

Palestinians flee areas of Rafah amid fresh Israeli strikes.
Palestinians flee areas of Rafah amid fresh Israeli strikes.

Israeli tanks have carried out a second day of probing attacks across Rafah after Washington said the assault did not amount to a major ground incursion of the southern Gazan city that US officials had told Israel to avoid.

Israeli tanks advanced to the heart of Rafah for the first time on Tuesday after a night of heavy bombardment, defying an appeal from the International Court of Justice to end its attack on the city, one of the last places of refuge in Gaza.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, reiterated its opposition to a major Israeli ground offensive in Rafah but said on Tuesday it did not believe such an operation was under way.

Palestinians flee the southern Gaza city of Rafah
About a million Palestinians have fled Rafah since since Israeli orders to leave. (AP PHOTO)

Unlike tactics used in Israel’s ground offensive in the rest of the enclave, Rafah residents said Israeli tanks mounted raids into Tel Al-Sultan in western Rafah and Yibna and near Shaboura in the centre before retreating to positions near the border with Egypt.

The armed wings of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad said they confronted the invading forces with anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs, as well as blowing up previously planted explosive devices.

The Israeli military said three soldiers were killed and three others badly wounded in combat in southern Gaza on Wednesday, without elaborating. 

Israel’s public broadcaster Kan radio said they were hurt by an explosive device in a building in Rafah.

Palestinian health officials said several people were wounded on Wednesday morning by Israeli fire in the eastern area of Rafah, where they also said some stores of aid were set ablaze.

The pro-Hamas Shebab news agency, as well as some residents and journalists, reported internet and mobile communications blackouts in some areas of both east and west amid heavy Israeli air and ground bombardment. 

The Israeli military said it could not confirm the reports.

A Palestinian woman reacts after an Israeli army operation in Rafah
More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s Gaza offensive. (EPA PHOTO)

In northern Gaza, tanks shelled several Gaza City neighbourhoods, and forces thrust deeper in Jabalia, the largest of the enclave’s eight biggest historic refugee camps, with residents saying large residential districts were destroyed by the army.

The health ministry said several hospitals in areas where the army was operating had stopped functioning.

About a million Palestinians took shelter in Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip following Israel’s offensives in most of the rest of the enclave during more than seven months of war against the Hamas militants who run the enclave.

About that number had fled Rafah since after Israeli orders to leave, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees reported on Tuesday.

In the nearby city of Khan Younis, an Israeli air strike killed three people overnight, including Salama Baraka, a former senior Hamas police officer, medics and Hamas media said.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said one of its staff, Issam Aqel, was killed in an Israeli air strike on his house in the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. 

It said his death rose to 30 the number of staff killed since October 7, at least 17 of them killed on duty.

Smoke after an explosion in the Gaza Strip
Israel and Hamas remain far from reaching a deal to cease fire and exchange hostages. (AP PHOTO)

Israel’s military denied striking a tent camp in a designated civilian evacuation zone west of Rafah on Tuesday after Gaza health authorities said Israeli tank shelling had killed at least 21 people there.

Both Hamas and Gaza health officials rejected the denial, blaming Israel for what they described as a “massacre”.

Nearly eight months since the war started, the two sides remain far from reaching a deal to cease fire and exchange hostages held captive in Gaza to a number of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Israel delivered its latest ceasefire and hostage release proposal to Qatar, and Qatar was to provide it to Hamas on Tuesday. 

There was no immediate word on Wednesday from Hamas, which has said talks are pointless unless Israel ends its offensive on Rafah.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s Gaza offensive, the enclave’s health ministry says.

Israel launched its air and ground war after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israeli communities on October 7, killing about 1200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.