Crossing is on Philadelphi Corridor, between Egypt and Gaza

IDF tanks take control of Gazan side of Rafah Crossing to Egypt, key road captured

Official says army launched ‘limited operation’ aimed at pressuring Hamas to accept a deal; army says 20 gunmen killed, 3 tunnels found, explosive-laden car hit as it drove at tank

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

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

Israeli tanks rolled into the southern Gaza Strip early Tuesday, capturing the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing on the Egypt border, in what the military called a “pinpoint operation” against the Hamas terror group.

The ground incursion in the eastern part of the city of Rafah came after Jerusalem said a truce offer from Hamas the previous day did not meet its demands, and announced that it had okayed moving ahead with the long-threatened offensive.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that it was a “limited operation” aimed at pressuring Hamas to accept a deal.

It was not the broad Rafah offensive that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly promised Israel would carry out, CNN reported, citing a source familiar with Israel’s plan.

The Israel Defense Forces said its 401st Armored Brigade captured the Gazan side of Rafah Crossing on Tuesday morning, apparently with little resistance. Israeli flags were raised by troops at the border crossing, footage showed.

The crossing, located some 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Israeli border, was captured amid a “pinpoint operation” against Hamas in “limited areas of eastern Rafah,” the IDF said. It is located along the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, separating Egypt and Gaza.

As of Tuesday morning, Israel controlled all of the known overground crossings with Gaza.

An Egyptian official and Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV said early Tuesday that Israeli officials informed the Egyptians that the troops would withdraw after completing the operation. No timeline was given.

The IDF said it had “intelligence information that terrorists were using the crossing area for terror purposes.” On Sunday, rockets were fired by Hamas from near the crossing toward the Kerem Shalom area in southern Israel, killing four soldiers and wounding others.

The Rafah crossing with Egypt was now disconnected from Gaza’s main north-south road, Salah a-Din. Part of the road in eastern Rafah was separately captured by the Givati Infantry Brigade in the overnight operation, the IDF said.

The IDF said some 20 gunmen were killed and troops located three “significant” tunnel shafts.

It remains unclear if Hamas still has tunnels running from the Rafah area into Egypt’s Sinai desert, which it had previously used to smuggle in weapons and supplies.

The Egyptian military over the past decade cracked down on the smuggling tunnels and destroyed hundreds of them, saying they were used to funnel weapons to jihadist groups in Sinai.

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

Also amid the overnight offensive, an explosive-laden car driving toward an IDF tank was struck and destroyed, the military said.

No soldiers were wounded in the operation as of Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the IDF said more than 50 Hamas sites in Rafah were struck by the air force overnight. Another 50 sites had been hit in the area late Monday, according to the military.

Palestinians reported heavy airstrikes in the east of the city overnight, killing at least 27 people.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on residential building in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

Israel has carried out airstrikes in Rafah with some regularity in recent months, even as it has held off on sending in troops amid vociferous international opposition to military operations in the city, where over a million Palestinians are thought to be sheltering, most of them displaced from other parts of the Strip.

After capturing the crossing, troops on Tuesday were searching the area for Hamas infrastructure and preparing for additional missions.

Leaked footage showed Israeli military vehicles driving along the Egypt-Gaza border, also known as the Philadelphi Corridor, in the eastern part of Rafah, near the captured crossing.

The clip showed an APC with two massive flags — one Israeli and the other of the 401st Armored Brigade, the unit that captured the Gazan side of the Rafah Crossing.

The IDF had not captured the entire Philadelphi Corridor, which runs for 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) all along the Gaza-Egypt border, as Netanyahu had vowed Israel would.

Israel has contended it must have control over the corridor to prevent weapons smuggling to Hamas.

Egypt on Tuesday warned that the Israeli operation in Rafah threatened ceasefire efforts, according to the country’s foreign ministry.

Also on Tuesday morning, Hamas fired several rockets and mortars from the city at the Kerem Shalom area, the site of Sunday’s deadly attack and just across the border from eastern Rafah. There was no damage or injuries, the IDF said.

Before launching the overnight operation, the IDF said it carried out “coordination with the international organizations operating in the area, with a request to move towards the humanitarian area, as part of the effort to evacuate the population that has been taking place.”

On Monday morning, Israel issued evacuation orders for some 100,000 Gazans in parts of eastern Rafah, who were told to evacuate to a designated “humanitarian zone” near Khan Younis, north of Rafah.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike on buildings near the separating wall between Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, May 6, 2024. (AP/Ramez Habboub)

Hours later, Hamas said it had accepted an Egyptian and Qatari ceasefire and hostage release proposal, but Israeli officials said the Hamas terms did not match what Jerusalem had agreed to, though working-level teams would travel to Cairo Tuesday to resume indirect talks.

Declaring that Hamas’s latest offer was “far from [meeting] Israel’s essential requirements,” a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the war cabinet had decided unanimously to push ahead with an IDF operation in Rafah “in order to apply military pressure on Hamas, with the goal of making progress on freeing the hostages and the other war aims.”

Netanyahu has for months vowed that Israeli troops would carry out an operation to root out the final Hamas strongholds in the southern Gaza city of Rafah regardless of a hostage release deal. Israeli defense officials say four of Hamas’s six remaining battalions are in the city, along with members of the group’s leadership and a significant number of the hostages abducted from Israel on October 7 during the terror group’s mass onslaught.

In a call with Netanyahu earlier Monday, US President Joe Biden reiterated his opposition to a major Israeli military offensive in Rafah, a White House readout said, without elaborating.

The US has repeatedly expressed opposition to a Rafah invasion without credible assurances from Israel that the million-plus Palestinians sheltering there would be protected. Israel claims it can safely evacuate and care for those civilians, but Washington has not been convinced.

Displaced Palestinians who left with their belongings from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following an evacuation order by the Israeli army, arrive in Khan Yunis on May 6, 2024. (AFP)

The Biden administration is pushing alternatives to a full Rafah invasion, including the bolstering of the Gaza border with Egypt and more targeted operations against Hamas’s leadership. But Netanyahu has turned a Rafah invasion into an essential, non-negotiable component of a “total victory” over the terror group.

The war erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, when thousands of terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and seized 252 hostages amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

In response to the onslaught, Israel launched a wide-scale offensive aiming to eliminate the terror group’s military and governance capabilities in Gaza and free the hostages, 128 of whom remain in captivity.

More than 34,700 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, according to unverifiable figures from Hamas health officials that do not distinguish between gunmen and civilians. Israel says it has killed 13,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza as well as 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7. Two hundred and sixty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed in the fighting in Gaza and amid operations on the border.

Lazar Berman, agencies, and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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