Israeli says combat in part of north Gaza is over

James Mackenzie |

Benny Gantz has proposed dissolving Israel’s parliament.
Benny Gantz has proposed dissolving Israel’s parliament.

Israeli forces have ended combat operations in the Jabalia area of north Gaza after destroying more than 10km of tunnels during days of intense fighting that included more than 200 air strikes, the military says.

At the south end of Gaza, Israeli forces pressing an offensive into Rafah found rocket launchers and other weapons as well as tunnel shafts built by Hamas in the city centre, the army said on Friday.

Tank-led Israeli troops aim to break up Hamas’ fighting formations in the city on the border with Egypt.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip
Israel signalled for weeks that it intended to mount an assault on Hamas in Rafah. (AP PHOTO)

In an update on more than two weeks of intense fighting in Jabalia, the Israeli military said troops had completed their operation and withdrawn to prepare for other operations in Gaza.

During the operation, troops recovered the bodies of seven of the 250 hostages Hamas-led militants abducted when they stormed over the border into Israel on October 7 and killed about 1200 people, according to Israeli tallies.

Since then, more than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 81,700 have been injured in Israel’s air and land war in Gaza, its Hamas-run health ministry says.

In Jabalia, a densely packed urban district populated by refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and their descendants, Hamas turned the “civilian area into a fortified combat compound”, the military statement said.

It said Israeli troops killed hundreds of militants in close-quarter combat and seized large caches of weaponry and destroyed rocket launchers primed for use.

Underground, Israel forces disabled a weapons-filled tunnel network extending more than 10km and killed Hamas’ district battalion commander, it said.

Israel has blamed what it calls Hamas’ deliberate embedding of fighters in residential areas for the high civilian toll in the war.

Palestinians fleeing from the southern Gaza city of Rafah
Most Palestinians have left Rafah after being told to leave before the Israeli operation. (AP PHOTO)

Hamas has denied using civilians as cover for fighters.

Jabalia has been battered by intense combat for weeks, underscoring Israel’s difficulty in destroying Hamas units.

There were weeks of heavy fighting in Jabalia in the early stages of the Israeli campaign and in January, the military said it had killed all the Hamas commanders and eliminated the combat formations of Gaza’s ruling group in the area.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow to eradicate Hamas as a fighting and political force has run up against the Islamist group’s deep roots in Gaza’s social fabric.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel on Wednesday to come up with a post-war plan for Gaza, warning that without one, further military gains might not be durable, and lawlessness, chaos and a Hamas comeback could ensue.

Israeli tanks rumbled into the centre of Rafah on Tuesday as part of a series of probing operations around the area that has become one of the main focal points of the war in Gaza, now in its eighth month.

The army said it had come across longer-range rockets as well as stocks of rocket-propelled grenades, explosives and ammunition as it continued “intelligence-based operational activities” in Rafah, which skirts Gaza’s border with Egypt.

Palestinians help wounded children in an Israeli bombardment in Gaza
More than 36,000 Palestinians have died and over 81,700 have been injured during the war in Gaza. (AP PHOTO)

Hamas fighters demonstrated their continuing strength in Rafah last week, launching missiles at Israel’s commercial hub Tel Aviv for the first time in months on Sunday.

Rafah, the only major city in Gaza yet to have been taken by Israeli forces, had been a refuge for more than one million Palestinians driven from their homes by fighting in other areas of the small coastal enclave, but most have left after being told to evacuate ahead of the Israeli operation.

Hundreds of thousands are living in tents and other temporary shelters in a special evacuation zone in nearby Al-Mawasi, a sandy, palm tree-dotted district on the coast, as well as areas in central Gaza.

Israel signalled for weeks that it intended to mount an assault on the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah, drawing international condemnation and warnings even from allies such as the United States not to attack the city while it remained full of displaced people.

As the war has dragged on and Gaza’s infrastructure has been widely demolished, malnutrition has spread among the 2.3 million population as aid deliveries have slowed to a trickle, and the United Nations has warned of incipient famine.