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Israel's invasion of Rafah reaches center of town, army says

Omar Tamo and Ethan Bronner, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Israeli tanks have reached the center of Rafah, a sign the military could be nearing its goal of taking full control of the southern Gazan city.

Residents reported clashes between Israeli and Hamas forces in the center of town on Tuesday, AFP said, suggesting troops have advanced beyond their initial incursions in the outskirts. An Israeli military official said tanks were being used as part of what he called a limited and precise set of operations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long said the country needed to start a ground invasion of Rafah to seek out the thousands of Hamas fighters and some leaders it says are based in the city, as well as some hostages. The plan has drawn international condemnation — including from the U.S. — even after Israel insisted it would first allow civilians to leave.

The United Nations says roughly one million civilians have fled Rafah, having sought shelter there during fighting elsewhere in Gaza. Devastation caused earlier in the near eight-month war means there are limited places for them to go, a predicament made clear on Sunday when an Israeli airstrike killed an estimated 45 Palestinians at a tent camp northwest of the city.

Israel said the attack was based on precise intelligence and that it killed two senior officials from Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union. Netanyahu called the incident a “tragic mistake.”

Another Israeli strike on Rafah on Tuesday killed 20 Palestinians, Gaza’s civil defense service reported. The death toll from the war as a whole is now more than 36,000, according to officials in the Hamas-run enclave.

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel’s chief military spokesman, said an ongoing probe into the fire that killed 45 Gazans during the Sunday night airstrike suggests it was caused by a secondary explosion, possibly as a result of arms stored by Hamas in a separate structure.

He said the warplanes that killed the two Hamas commanders used the smallest munitions they have, and those alone couldn’t have ignited the fire. He added that Hamas rocket launchers had been found some 43 meters away and Hamas has embedded itself in that part of Rafah among sheltering civilians since Oct. 7.

 

Hagari also played an intercepted phone call that he said was between two Gazans discussing the explosion and fire. One speaks of “ammunition that started exploding” and the other responds, “This is an ammunition warehouse. I tell you it exploded. I mean, the Jewish bombing wasn’t strong, it was a small missile because it didn’t create a large hole.”

Egypt tunnels

Israel’s military has found a number of tunnels from Rafah into Egypt and destroyed them, Hagari said, adding that Egypt was being kept informed.

Israel had pledged to invade Rafah while limiting civilian casualties, even as the city’s population swelled to about 1.4 million mostly displaced people. The U.S. and other allies fear mass deaths, and have urged Israel to cancel or sharply curtail plans for the assault.

The war has inflamed the region and led to widespread criticism of Israel. The International Court of Justice published a ruling on Friday that most interpreted as ordering a halt to military activities in Rafah, while the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as leaders of Hamas.

On Tuesday, Spain, Ireland and Norway formally recognized a Palestinian state, in defiance of Israel’s wishes.

The conflict began when Hamas fighters stormed into Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting 250.


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