Israel Pushes Into Central Rafah in Southern Gaza Offensive

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Tents destroyed by an Israeli strike west of Rafah this week. Many Palestinians had sought refuge in the city after Israel ordered a mass evacuation of northern Gaza in late October.Credit…Jehad Alshrafi/Associated Press

The Israeli military said on Friday that its forces had advanced into central Rafah, pushing even deeper into the southern Gaza city despite an international backlash and pressure from allies to scale back the latest offensive.

Israeli commandoes backed by tanks and artillery were operating in central Rafah, the Israeli military said in a statement, without specifying precise locations. On Wednesday, the Israeli military said it had established “operational control” over the border zone with Egypt, an eight-mile-long strip known as the Philadelphi Corridor, on the outskirts of Rafah.

More than one million Palestinians in Rafah, about half the territory’s total population, have fled the Israeli offensive over the past few weeks, according to the United Nations, many of them displaced for the second or third time in this conflict. Many had sought refuge there after Israel ordered a mass evacuation of northern Gaza in late October, swelling the city’s population to 1.4 million.

Israel has followed through with its offensive in Rafah despite concerns from close allies like the United States over the safety of displaced Palestinians and other civilians sheltering there. Israeli officials say they cannot defeat Hamas in Gaza without rooting out its forces in the city and demolishing a network of the group’s cross-border tunnels used to smuggle in munitions and other supplies from neighboring Egypt.

But the assault has deepened the misery of many ordinary Palestinians. On Sunday, at least 45 people were killed in a single Israeli strike, according to Gazan health officials. The Israeli military said the bombardment had targeted two Hamas commanders, but unintentionally also set off a blaze at a nearby area where civilians were sheltering.

Last week, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to rein in its ongoing military offensive in Rafah, warning of irreparable harm to civilians, although some of the judges wrote that Israel could still conduct some military operations there. The Israeli military pressed on with the operation despite that pressure, describing its Rafah campaign as limited and precise.

Commercially available satellite imagery taken by Planet Labs on Thursday showed that the Israeli military had set up positions in parts of central Rafah, while military vehicles and tanks could be spotted as far as the outskirts of the Tel al-Sultan area in western Rafah.







Much of eastern Rafah has been devastated since the offensive began in early May, particularly around the border crossing with Egypt, according to satellite photos from May 22. Israel captured the Rafah crossing in an overnight operation on May 7 that marked the beginning of their assault on the area.

Source: Satellite imagery from Planet Labs

The Rafah crossing has served as a vital conduit for getting humanitarian aid into Gaza amid widespread deprivation and hunger. It also served as the main gateway for sick and wounded Gaza residents to flee the fighting and receive urgent medical care.

Israeli officials say the portal was a central part of Hamas’s smuggling operations into the enclave, which has been subject to a crushing Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Palestinian armed group seized control of Gaza by force in 2007.

The crossing has been shuttered since its capture by Israeli forces, and Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian officials have been unable to reach a deal to resume operations there.

After U.S. pressure, Egypt began diverting some aid trucks to another crossing, the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom, this week in an attempt to alleviate a sharp decline in aid entering Gaza.

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