3 soldiers killed in north Gaza; IDF advances in Rafah, locates rocket launchers

More than half of Philadelphi Corridor now under Israeli control; airstrike on UNRWA school in central part of Strip takes out Hamas operatives, weapons depot

From left: Staff Sgt. Eliyahu Haim Emsallem, Master Sgt. (res.) Gideon Chay DeRowe and Cpt. Israel Yudkin. (Courtesy)
From left: Staff Sgt. Eliyahu Haim Emsallem, Master Sgt. (res.) Gideon Chay DeRowe and Cpt. Israel Yudkin. (Courtesy)

Three Israeli soldiers were killed during fighting in northern Gaza on Wednesday, the military said, as Israeli tanks advanced to the edge of a district in the heart of Rafah in the Strip’s south following what residents said was one of the most intense nights of bombardment since Israel launched its offensive there earlier this month.

The slain troops were named as:

  • Master Sgt. (res.) Gideon Chay DeRowe, 33, of the Combat Engineering Corps’ elite Yahalom unit, from Tel Aviv
  • Cpt. Israel Yudkin, 22, an officer in the Kfir Brigade’s Netzah Yehuda Battalion, from Kfar Chabad
  • Staff Sgt. Eliyahu Haim Emsallem, 21, of the Kfir Brigade’s Netzah Yehuda Battalion, from Ra’anana

Emsallem and Yudkin were killed in a Hamas sniper attack in northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun. Another soldier of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion was seriously wounded in the same incident, the Israel Defense Forces said.

DeRowe was killed by an explosive device in a building in northern Gaza. The military said another soldier of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion and a Yahalom reservist were also seriously wounded in the same blast.

Their deaths brought the toll of slain troops in the IDF’s ground offensive against Hamas and during operations along the Gaza border to 286. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

Troops of the Nahal Brigade operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout image published May 22, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Meanwhile, the IDF’s assault on Hamas in Rafah, in the Strip’s south, has set some 950,000 people fleeing what had been a refuge for around half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people.

Some 300,000 to 400,000 civilians remain in Rafah, mostly in the coastal area and some parts of the center of the city, according to information seen by The Times of Israel on Monday.

The IDF has asserted that Rafah is Hamas’s last major stronghold in Gaza, and where four of its battalions are located: Yabna (South), Shaboura (North), Tel Sultan (West) and East Rafah. Two more Hamas battalions remain in central Gaza, in the Nuseirat and Deir al-Balah camps.

Israel believes Hamas leaders and many operatives are hiding in Rafah, and also that an unspecified number of the remaining 124 hostages kidnapped in the Hamas-led October 7 atrocities are being held in the city. Israel says it has no choice but to attack the city to root out the Hamas battalions there.

The military has been slowly moving into the eastern outskirts of Rafah since the start of the month, as Palestinians have evacuated to the al-Mawasi area, designated by the IDF as a “humanitarian zone,” on the Strip’s coast, and to central Gaza.

IDF troops of the 460th Armored Brigade operate in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, in a handout image published on May 21, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Residents quoted by Reuters said tanks had taken up new positions on Wednesday further west than before along the southern border fence with Egypt, and were now stationed on the edge of the Yabna neighborhood in the center of Rafah.

“There has been no stopping of Israeli fire all night, from drones, helicopters, warplanes and tanks,” one resident of Rafah told Reuters.

The IDF said Wednesday that it had deployed an additional battalion to Rafah, as it began operating in the city’s Brazil and Shaboura neighborhoods, following “information on terror targets in the area.”

The Nahal Brigade joined the 162nd Division which has been operating in Rafah since earlier this month. Nahal was the fifth IDF brigade to be operating in the city in southern Gaza, after the 401st, Givati, Commando and Negev brigades.

The IDF said that the operation in Rafah was being carried out in an “accurate manner… while preventing harm to the civilian population as much as possible, after the civilians have evacuated the area.”

Ahead of the push deeper into Rafah, the military said it carried out a wave of fighter jet strikes against Hamas targets in the area.

Also Wednesday, the IDF said that troops of the 401st Armored Brigade located several rocket launchers on the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, the border area between Gaza and Egypt.

The primed launchers were destroyed, the military said.

So far amid the operation in southern Gaza’s Rafah, the IDF has captured just over half of the Philadelphi Corridor — which runs for a total of 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) all along the Gaza-Egypt border — according to information seen by The Times of Israel on Monday.

The military has said that it has located dozens of tunnel shafts and “a number of significant underground routes” in the eastern Rafah area that are currently under investigation or being prepared to be demolished.

It has not, however, detailed how many of the tunnels cross into Egypt. In the past, Hamas used such tunnels to smuggle in weapons and supplies.

The United States and other allies had pressed Israel for months not to invade the city, citing the likely humanitarian consequences. Though on Tuesday, a senior Biden administration official told reporters that “it’s fair to say that the Israelis have updated their plans. They’ve incorporated many of the concerns that we have expressed.”

The US had predicted that it would have taken some four months to evacuate the population of more than one million sheltering in Rafah, while the majority appear to have left the area in just two weeks.

A picture shows a view of a deserted displacement camp area east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 19, 2024. (AFP)

Meanwhile, the IDF said Wednesday that it carried out an airstrike against a United Nations school in central Gaza’s Nuseirat where members of Hamas were gathered.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, a member of Hamas’s anti-tank unit and a member of the terror group’s elite Nukhba force were at the school, which is administered by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The UNRWA site had been used to store weapons, including mortars, guns and explosive devices, the army said, citing secondary blasts seen after the strike, which the military said indicated weapons storage.

The strike was “carefully planned and carried out using precise munitions” while “avoiding harm to uninvolved [civilians] as much as possible,” the IDF said.

Israel has previously accused UNRWA of enabling Hamas to use its facilities in Gaza for terror. It has also provided evidence that several agency employees are members of terror groups and were involved in the October 7 attack.

The UN rejects the allegations, and an independent review published at the UN’s request in April said that Israel had not provided supporting evidence for them.

A separate airstrike killed five Hamas operatives who were also gathered at a school in the area of Gaza City’s Daraj and Tuffah neighborhoods, the military said.

The IDF said that those killed in that strike were Fadi Salim, the head of the propaganda unit in Hamas’s Gaza City Brigade, three members of Hamas’s intelligence unit, and another Nukhba member.

Another airstrike, in the southern Gaza Strip, killed Ahmed Yasser al-Qara, a “prominent” member of Hamas’s anti-tank unit who participated in the October 7 onslaught, the IDF said. Also killed in that strike were a Nukhba member and an operative of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to the military.

The IDF said it delayed the strike targeting al-Qara after a child was identified in the vicinity of the building. It waited until the child was a safe distance away before launching the attack.

Meanwhile, in the northern Gaza Strip, the IDF was pressing on with a major operation against Hamas in the Jabaliya area.

The fighting in Jabaliya has been described by the IDF as “intense,” and by some officers as the “most violent” battles amid the war.

On Wednesday, the IDF said primed rocket launchers were found by troops of the 7th Armored Brigade amid operations in Jabaliya, as were dozens of rockets along with explosive belts, IEDs, grenades, and other weapons.

A rocket launcher is found by troops in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, in a handout image published May 22, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Also in Jabaliya, the military said soldiers of the Paratroopers Brigade directed a drone strike against a Hamas weapons depot where eight terror operatives were gathered.

According to the military, the Hamas operatives were involved in rocket fire, launching drones, and observing Israeli forces in Gaza.

Troops have raided and demolished dozens of sites belonging to terror groups amid the operation that began earlier this month, the military said.

On May 12, the IDF pushed into Jabaliya for the third time, in a surprise operation aimed at dismantling Hamas cells that had regrouped there after the military withdrew months ago.

According to the IDF, more than 200 terror operatives have been killed by troops amid the fighting in Jabaliya, and dozens of rocket launchers have been destroyed.

Speaking to officers in Jabaliya on Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said the military was willing to carry out risky missions to recover the bodies of slain hostages.

“The mission… is to kill as many [Hamas] commanders as possible, as many terrorists as possible, to destroy the infrastructure. This pressure… will also help us to bring hostages alive and we are ready to carry out dangerous and complicated operations to bring the bodies of our hostages back to be buried in Israel,” Halevi said.

The bodies of four hostages killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7 were recently recovered from a tunnel in Jabaliya. A paratrooper officer was killed during fighting above ground in the area of the operation.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with troops in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, May 21, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Separately, several more gunmen were killed by troops in the central Gaza Strip, the IDF added.

Over the past day, the Israeli Air Force struck more than 130 targets across the Gaza Strip, including cells of terror operatives, buildings used by terror groups, observation posts, and other infrastructure, the military said Wednesday.

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists kill close to 1,200 people in southern Israel and seize 252 hostages.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though only some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals. The tolls, which cannot be verified, include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle.

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