IDF tanks seen reaching central Rafah, as troops operate along key Philadelphi Route

Military says it located tunnels, weapons, and killed terrorists overnight along Gaza-Egypt border; UNRWA says one million Palestinians have fled southern city

Illustrative: Troops of the Nahal Brigade operate in southern Gaza's Rafah, in a handout image published May 28, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Troops of the Nahal Brigade operate in southern Gaza's Rafah, in a handout image published May 28, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli tanks reached the center of Rafah for the first time on Tuesday, witnesses said, as the military pressed its incursion into Gaza’s southernmost city despite mounting international opposition to the operation.

The tanks were spotted near Al-Awda mosque, a central Rafah landmark, the witnesses told Reuters. The Israeli military said its forces continued to operate in the Rafah area without commenting on reported advances into the city center.

Footage from Al Jazeera posted to social media purported to show the tanks advancing into Rafah.

There was no immediate comment from the IDF on the witness accounts, with the military saying it will issue a statement on the Rafah operation later in the day.

Amid mounting international pressure, Israel insists that the military operation in Rafah is crucial to its goal of eliminating Hamas and freeing the hostages seized during the terror group’s October 7 massacre.

International criticism escalated after Israeli airstrikes near Rafah on Sunday night, with Hamas health authorities reporting that 45 people were killed and dozens injured in the attack and in an ensuing blaze in a camp housing displaced civilians.

The Israel Defense Forces said it had targeted a Hamas compound and eliminated two commanders in the terror group’s ranks, and that it is investigating what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a “tragic mishap.”

Amid the mounting criticism, the IDF said Tuesday it deployed an additional brigade to southern Gaza’s Rafah.

The Bislamach Brigade — the School for Infantry Corps Professions and Squad Commanders in peacetime — joined the 162nd Division’s other brigades that have been operating in Rafah since earlier this month.

The military said it operated along the Philadelphi Corridor overnight, following information on infrastructure belonging to terror groups in the area. The IDF said troops located tunnels and weapons, and killed numerous operatives in the Rafah area.

So far amid the operation in southern Gaza’s Rafah, the IDF has captured around 70 percent of the Philadelphi Corridor — which runs for a total of 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) all along the Gaza-Egypt border — according to Hebrew media reports in recent days.

Egypt has repeatedly warned Israel against taking control of the Palestinian side of the Philadelphi Corridor, saying it would violate agreements between Jerusalem and Cairo. The move adds to mounting tensions between the neighbors after Israeli and Egyptian troops exchanged fire on Monday, leaving one Egyptian soldier dead.

Israeli tanks pushed towards western neighborhoods and took positions on the Zurub hilltop in western Rafah in one of the heaviest nights of Israeli strikes reported by residents. On Tuesday, witnesses reported gun battles between Israeli troops and Hamas-led operatives in the Zurub area.

“The situation is very dangerous,” said one resident, Faten Jouda, 30. “We didn’t sleep all night. There was random bombing from all directions, including artillery shelling and air bombardment as well as firing from aircraft.”

“We saw everyone fleeing again,” she told AFP. “We too will go now and head to Al-Mawasi because we fear for our lives,” she said, referring to a nearby coastal area Israel has declared a safe “humanitarian zone.”

Israel has faced intense international pressure not to launch an operation in Rafah after more than 1.4 million Palestinians from other parts of the Strip took shelter in the city.

However, on Tuesday, the UN said that around one million Palestinians have left the Rafah area in the past three weeks after Israel began issuing evacuation orders early this month.

“This happened with nowhere safe to go & amidst bombardments, lack of food & water, piles of waste & unsuitable living conditions,” the UN agency for Palestinians charged in a post on social media platform X.

The IDF has called on residents to move to an expanded humanitarian zone in the al-Mawasi and Khan Younis areas of southern Gaza, estimating last week that some 950,000 Palestinians had evacuated from Rafah.

Meanwhile fighting continued in northern and central Gaza.

Dozens of sites belonging to terror groups were also destroyed during operations in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, according to the IDF.

It said the sites in Jabaliya include observation posts, weapon depots, and a building used by Hamas.

Several operatives were killed by troops in Jabaliya in the past day, including a mortar-launching cell that was struck by a fighter jet, the military said.

Troops operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout image published May 28, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The fighting has been described by the IDF and some officers as “intense” and the “most violent” of the war, with many engagements, both above ground and with Hamas operatives using tunnels. The IDF has also recovered the bodies of seven slain hostages from tunnels in Jabaliya.

And in central Gaza, the IDF said it has expanded operations in the Netzarim Corridor area, killing operatives and raiding Hamas sites.

War broke out on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israeli communities and army positions, killing around 1,200 people, taking 252 hostages, and committing other atrocities.

Israel’s government has vowed to destroy the group to keep it from being able to launch such an assault ever again and to recover the hostages, 121 of whom are still held in Gaza, along with two civilians and the bodies of two soldiers held there for nearly a decade.

The ensuing military campaign has killed over 36,000 Gazans, according to the Strip’s Hamas-run health authorities, whose numbers cannot be verified, and do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed some 15,000 Palestinian fighters in battle, as well as some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Two hundred and eighty-eight 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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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