Bodies of hostages were found in tunnel in Jabaliya

IDF estimates 950,000 Gazans have evacuated from Rafah amid offensive

Hamas believed to still be capable of firing rockets at central Israel, using stockpiles in Strip’s southernmost city; half of corridor along Egypt border captured by army

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

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

The Israeli military estimated Monday that some 950,000 Palestinians had evacuated the Rafah area in the southern Gaza Strip, as ground forces operate in the eastern part of the city.

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.

The Israel Defense Forces had issued an evacuation warning for the eastern part of Rafah earlier this month.

That evacuation zone had only some 150,000 Palestinians in it, meaning many civilians from other parts of Rafah, where the IDF has not yet operated, evacuated on their own. More than a million Palestinians were sheltering in the city before the IDF pushed into the area.

Palestinian civilians are now largely concentrated in the al-Mawasi area, designated by the IDF as a “humanitarian zone,” on the Strip’s coast, and in central Gaza, in areas where IDF ground forces have not yet operated. There is also a substantial civilian population in the coastal part of Rafah and in some areas of northern Gaza.

The military claims it learned from past experiences when it came to evacuating the population in Rafah, which was carried out at a much faster pace than the United States had predicted.

IDF soldiers operate in the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip in a photo cleared for publication on May 20, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Among the moves to enable the evacuation, the al-Mawasi humanitarian zone was expanded to accommodate more civilians, damaged water lines were fixed by Palestinians, and field hospitals were moved to the zone. Aid deliveries are also being focused there.

The IDF believes that some Hamas operatives and members of other terror groups fled Rafah with the population to the humanitarian zone, as there are no Israeli checkpoints.

Still, many gunmen have stayed behind in Rafah to fight. More than 130 terror operatives have been killed by Israeli troops so far amid the operation in eastern Rafah, the IDF said Monday.

Rafah has been seen by the IDF as Hamas’s last major stronghold in Gaza, and where four of its battalions are located. 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.

The city in southern Gaza is also one of the last locations where Hamas was believed by the IDF to have major rocket stockpiles.

Smoke trails from rockets fired by Gaza terror groups as seen from the Israeli side of the border, April 7, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The terror group is not believed by the IDF to have any rocket manufacturing capabilities amid the war, with the military taking out its major factories in other areas of Gaza.

The IDF believes that Hamas has the capability to launch rocket attacks on central Israel from the Rafah area, and when troops advance further into the city, the terror group is likely to carry out such an attack, similar to how it has operated in other areas of Gaza.

Amid the war, Hamas has repeatedly carried out rocket attacks from areas where troops are advancing, in an attempt to prevent Israeli forces from capturing their stockpiles.

Currently, the IDF has not pushed further than the Brazil neighborhood of eastern Rafah, leaving most of the city under Hamas control.

The IDF still maintains control of the Rafah Border Crossing with Egypt, which had been a major conduit of humanitarian aid into the enclave. The crossing has remained shuttered since the IDF seized control of the Gazan side on May 7, as Egypt has insisted that it will not allow deliveries to resume until the Gazan side of the crossing is back under Palestinian control.

IDF troops on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

At the same time, there were ongoing operations along the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, separating Egypt and Gaza.

The IDF has so far captured only about half of the Philadelphi Corridor — in eastern Rafah — which runs for a total of 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) all along the Gaza-Egypt border.

In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would need to take control of the entire corridor to ensure that Gaza is and remains demilitarized and to prevent weapons from being smuggled through tunnels from Egypt into the coastal enclave.

The military said Monday that it had 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.

Smoke billows during Israeli strikes in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 13, 2024. (AFP)

Egypt has denied that weapons are smuggled to Gaza via tunnels, insisting that the measures it has taken in recent years — including the construction of a concrete border wall stretching six meters underground and topped with barbed wire — had put an end to the longstanding smuggling issue.

Hostage bodies recovered from Jabaliya tunnel

Meanwhile, the military permitted for publication Monday that the bodies of four Israeli hostages recovered from Gaza last week were found in a Hamas tunnel in the Jabaliya camp in the northern part of the Strip.

The IDF had not reached the tunnel — which had served as a command center for the terror group amid the fighting — during its initial ground operation in Jabaliya.

The bodies of Ron Benjamin, Itzhak Gelernter, Amit Buskila, and Shani Louk were hidden inside the tunnel, and the area surrounding it was guarded by Hamas, according to the military. In an alley close to the tunnel shaft, terror operatives had planted a large explosive device, which was disarmed by troops.

Clockwise from top left, the four hostages whose bodies were recovered by the IDF from the Gaza Strip on May 17, 2024: Ron Benjamin, Shani Louk, Itzhak Gelernter and Amit Bouskila. (Courtesy)

There were several clashes aboveground as troops pushed into the area, and in one incident, Maj. Gal Shabbat, 24, a company commander in the Paratroopers Brigade’s 202nd Battalion, was fatally wounded. However, there was no fighting in the tunnel itself where the bodies were held.

Last week, 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. The military first entered Jabaliya in October, before leaving during a weeklong truce in November. It then returned immediately after the ceasefire, before withdrawing a second time in December.

On Monday, at least one rocket was fired from the Jabaliya area at the southern city of Sderot, setting off alarms. The IDF said the rocket hit an open area, causing no damage or injuries.

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.

In all, the military said Monday that the Israeli Air Force had struck more than 80 targets belonging to terror groups in the Gaza Strip over the past day.

Hamas commanders killed

Earlier Monday, the IDF and Shin Bet security service announced that two Hamas military operatives who also served as top officials in the terror group’s police were killed in recent Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.

On Sunday, Zaher al-Houli, a senior police officer in central Gaza was targeted in a drone strike. According to the IDF, al-Houli was a member of Hamas’s military wing along with his senior role in the police.

“As part of his activities, Zaher maintained contacts with other terrorists from the organization and advanced terror attacks against the Israeli home front,” the military said.

A separate strike on Saturday killed Rami Khalil Faki, who the IDF said was a member of Hamas’s military wing, alongside his role as a top officer in the Nuseirat police.

“As part of his role, he commanded a force of armed terrorists who led acts against our forces,” the military said. Faki’s deputy and four more Hamas members were killed in the strike.

Police in the Gaza Strip are under the jurisdiction of Hamas, and according to Israel, many of its officers also serve in the terror group’s military wing.

The war erupted when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air, and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

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. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Two hundred and eighty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

Most Popular
read more: