Israeli tanks said to roll into Rafah after war cabinet okays offensive

Fighting heard near crossing between southern Gaza city and Egypt and airstrikes appear to bombard parts of city, but reports indicate incursion limited in scope

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)
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)

Israeli tanks and troops appeared to push their way into the southern Gaza city of Rafah early Tuesday after Jerusalem said a truce offer from the Hamas terror group did not meet its demands and announced that it had okayed moving ahead with the long-threatened offensive.

The Israeli military said it was conducting “targeted strikes” against Hamas in eastern Rafah, thought to be the terror group’s final stronghold.

Soon after, Israeli tanks entered Gaza near Rafah, reaching as close as 200 meters (650 feet) from the Rafah Crossing terminal with neighboring Egypt, a Palestinian security official and an Egyptian official said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Gunfire and explosions could be heard in footage aired from the crossing by Egypt’s al-Qahera TV, which showed the Egyptian side of the crossing empty of people. The rumble of tanks and drone of helicopters were also audible.

The Egyptian official said the operation appeared to be limited in scope. He and Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV said Israeli officials informed the Egyptians that the troops would withdraw after completing the operation.

On Sunday, Hamas fighters near the Rafah crossing fired rockets into southern Israel, killing four Israeli soldiers and wounding 10.

Palestinians also reported heavy airstrikes in the east of the city, killing at least five. Israel has carried out airstrikes in Rafah with some regularity in recent months, even as it has held off on sending troops into the city 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.

A US official said Washington did not believe the offensive in Rafah represented a major military operation, though the action was still concerning.

The Israeli military declined to comment.

The apparent operation came after a day that saw Israel issue evacuation orders for some 100,000 Gazans in parts of eastern Rafah, who were told to evacuate to a “safe zone” near Khan Younis, north of Rafah.

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)

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 hostages abducted from Israel on October 7 during the terror group’s mass onslaught.

Palestinians at the site of a destroyed building from an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 5, 2024 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“Israel will achieve its war objectives,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel late Monday. “We will destroy Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, free the hostages and ensure that Gaza does not pose a threat to Israel and the civilized world in the future,” the official pledged, reiterating messages that have come from Israeli officials for weeks.

An Israeli push into Rafah would meet the demands of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, who have repeatedly insisted that the military not be held back from conquering the city, even if it means endangering a possible hostage deal.

“I’m praying for the success of our troops who are finally fighting in Rafah,” minister Orit Strock told the Kan broadcaster Monday night.

At the same time, families of hostages and anti-government protesters took to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Monday night to rally for a ceasefire that would bring the remaining 128 hostages captured on October 7 home.

“The time has come to take the deal. The time has come for a ceasefire,” Einav Zangauker, mother of hostage Matan Zangauker, yelled into a bullhorn as protesters blocked cars on the Ayalon freeway in Tel Aviv. “We won’t let them pass up the chance tonight.”

Relatives and supporters of hostages taken captive by Hamas on October 7, hold placards and wave flags during a demonstration calling for their release, Tel Aviv, May 6, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The prospect of a push into Gaza also sparked international condemnation, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres saying “a ground invasion in Rafah would be intolerable because of its devastating humanitarian consequences, and because of its destabilizing impact in the region.” He said Hamas’s truce offer was “an opportunity that cannot be missed.”

Visiting Washington, Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged US President Joe Biden to intervene to stop a “new massacre” in Rafah, warning that the move could cause the war to expand beyond Gaza.

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

Demonstrators protest in solidarity with Gaza, outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, Monday, May 6, 2024. (AP/Emrah Gurel)

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.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said later Monday that the US would not support any ground operations in Rafah that would put civilians at risk. This appeared to be a hardening of the previously long-held position in Washington that specifically opposed a “major” offensive in the city.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Monday the US has not seen a credible plan to protect Palestinian civilians. “We cannot support an operation in Rafah as it is currently envisioned,” he said.

Palestinians walk in a camp for displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip by the border with Egypt on April 28, 2024. (AFP)

The Biden administration is pushing alternatives to a 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 many 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 34,000 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.

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