Israeli tanks move deeper into Rafah, Palestinians say, as 450,000 flee

IDF says it’s looking into UN car hit in ‘active combat zone’; army says gun battles continuing in Rafah and north Gaza, dozens of gunmen killed

Israeli troops operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo published May 14, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli troops operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo published May 14, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli tanks forged deeper into eastern Rafah on Tuesday, reaching some residential districts of the southern border city where more than a million people had been sheltering after being displaced due the war against Hamas in Gaza.

“The tanks advanced this morning west of Salahuddin Road into the Brzail and Jneina neighborhoods. They are in the streets inside the built-up area and there are clashes,” one resident told Reuters via a chat app.

Video on social media showed one tank on George Street in Al-Jneina neighborhood. Reuters could not verify the video.

In a round-up of its activities, the IDF said its forces had eliminated several armed cells in close-quarter fighting on the Gazan side of the Rafah Border Crossing with Egypt. In the east of the city, it said, it had also destroyed cells of gunmen and a launch post from where missiles were being fired at IDF troops.

The latest fighting in Gaza came as Israel marked a dour Independence Day with subdued events in the shadow of October 7 and the seven-month-old war.

Israel’s international allies and aid groups have repeatedly urged against a ground incursion into refugee-packed Rafah, warning of a potential humanitarian catastrophe. Israel says it is acting to evacuate civilians ahead of moving into new areas. It says a Rafah operation is necessary as part of its effort to eliminate Hamas’s remaining operational battalions.

CNN reported overnight that the US believes Israel has enough troops just outside Rafah to launch a full ground operation soon.

Israeli troops operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo published May 14, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The report, citing two senior US administration officials, said the Biden administration is unsure if Israel has made the decision to move ahead with a full ground invasion of the city, following President Joe Biden’s warning last week that such a move would prompt the US to withhold some weapons shipments.

Israel has urged residents of some neighborhoods in the city, which the IDF has called the last major Hamas stronghold in Gaza, to evacuate over the past week. The United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees says that around 450,000 Palestinians have left Rafah since then, as the IDF has escalated its operations in the southernmost Gazan city.

Also Tuesday, the Israeli military responded to the death of a United Nations employee and the injury of another in southern Gaza’s Rafah the previous day, saying that the pair were hit in an active combat zone, but further details were under investigation.

In response to a query, the IDF said it received reports that two members of the UN Department of Safety and Security were hit while driving in the Rafah area. According to a UN spokesman, the pair were driving to the European Hospital in southern Gaza when one of the staffers was killed.

Photos published of the car on social media appeared to show it had been hit by bullets.

“An initial inquiry conducted indicates that the vehicle was hit in an area declared an active combat zone,” the military said, maintaining that it had “not been made aware of the route of the vehicle.”

“The incident is under review,” it said, without attributing responsibility for the strike.

The UN has not yet cast blame for the incident.

Monday’s incident marked the first time a UN international employee has been killed in the Gaza war, though a large number of local staff have died.

The army said Tuesday that more than 100 targets were struck by Israeli Air Force fighter jets, drones and helicopters across the Gaza Strip over the past day, as fighting continues in Rafah, Zeitoun and Jabaliya.

The IDF said troops killed several cells of gunmen in close-quarters combat in eastern Rafah, and located weapons.

File: Displaced Palestinians arrive in central Gaza after fleeing from the southern Gaza city of Rafah in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Thursday, May 9, 2024 (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana, File)

The Jabaliya and Zeitoun operations in northern Gaza were launched in recent days after the army said it had identified Hamas forces regrouping in those areas.

In Jabaliya, the military said soldiers raided Hamas sites in the city in northern Gaza. Over the past day, troops killed dozens of gunmen in Jabaliya, according to the IDF.

Meanwhile, in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, troops located tunnel shafts and destroyed several rocket launchers and a weapons depot. Several gunmen were also killed by the troops, the military said.

Sites hit by the IAF included a command room in central Gaza where at least five operatives were gathered, booby-trapped buildings, and other infrastructure, along with gunmen near troops, the IDF added.

In the morning rocket sirens sounded in Ashkelon and other nearby areas as rockets were fired from Gaza at the southern Israeli city. There were no reports of damage.

The International Red Cross said Tuesday it was opening a field hospital in southern Gaza to try to meet what it described as “overwhelming” demand for health services in the city.

Some health clinics have suspended activities while patients and medics have fled from a major hospital as Israel has stepped up its operations.

The ICRC said that staff at the new facility will be able to treat around 200 people a day and can provide emergency surgical care and manage mass casualties as well as provide pediatric and other services.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive in the Gaza Strip walk along a beach of Mediterranean Sea at a makeshift tent camp in Deir al Balah, Monday, May 13, 2024 (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Tensions have risen between Israel and Egypt over the Rafah operation, and Cairo has indicated it will not bring aid into Gaza through the crossing — a key entry point for goods — so long as Israeli forces control it.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Egyptian anger was partly a result of Cairo having previously received assurances from Israel that any operation along its border would not happen without warning and that civilians would have “weeks” to depart.

“None of these assurances materialized, with Israel giving us a very short notice about entering the crossing,” an unidentified Egyptian official told the Journal.

Amid fresh distrust between the sides, the report said, Cairo is considering downgrading — but not cutting — its diplomatic relations with Israel.

According to the report, officials say that pulling Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv is a move being weighed.

“As we stand, there are no plans to suspend ties or throw away Camp David,” another Egyptian official told the newspaper, referring to the US-backed accords that led to the countries’ 1979 peace treaty. “But as long as Israeli forces remain at Rafah Crossing, Egypt will not send a single truck to Rafah.”

On Monday the military said that five Israeli soldiers and a Defense Ministry contractor had been seriously wounded in a series of incidents in the Strip in recent days.

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 attacks, which saw some 3,000 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 the ensuing war has killed more than 35,000 people in the Strip, a toll that cannot be independently verified and does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. The UN says some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals at this time. The rest of the total figure is based on murkier Hamas “media reports.”

Israel has said it has killed some 15,000 terror operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7, while 272 soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and in the course of operations along the Gaza border.

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