Crisis in the Middle East: Israel pushes towards the center of Rafah in the offensive in southern Gaza

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

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

Commercially available satellite images, taken on Thursday by Planet Labs, also show that the Israeli army had established positions in parts of central Rafah, while military vehicles and tanks could be spotted as far away as the outskirts of the Tel Al area. -Sultan, in the western part of Rafah.

Despite nearly eight months of fighting, Israel has yet to achieve its stated goals of bringing home the approximately 125 hostages held in Gaza and toppling Hamas. Israeli officials said shutting down Hamas’ cross-border smuggling network and rooting out militants in Rafah would be key steps toward those goals.

Another recent focal point of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza was Jabaliya in the north, where the army said it conducted more than 200 airstrikes during weeks of intense fighting with Hamas militants. Israeli forces withdrew on Friday, according to the Palestinian army and residents, leaving widespread devastation in their wake. The army said it was still conducting some combat operations in central Gaza.

Military analysts have expressed skepticism that the Rafah offensive could deal Hamas the decisive blow Israel has long awaited. But this has compounded the misery of ordinary Palestinians, who still face widespread hunger in the enclave. And since the offensive began, the amount of international aid reaching southern Gaza has decreased, although there has been a slight increase in the arrival of commercial goods.

Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s national security adviser, said Wednesday that Israeli military operations in Gaza will likely last until the end of the year. Hanegbi, a top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a radio interview that fighting would continue for months to “consolidate the gains made” against Hamas.

According to the United Nations, more than a million Palestinians in Rafah, about half the territory’s total population, have fled the Israeli offensive in recent weeks, 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, bringing the city’s population to 1.4 million.

Palestinians flee the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Tuesday amid ongoing Israeli military operations.Credit…Jehad Alshrafi/Associated Press

Israel pressed ahead with its offensive in Rafah despite concerns from close allies such as the United States that any major military attack would put civilians in grave danger.

On Sunday, some of those fears appeared to be realized when at least 45 people were killed in an Israeli attack and subsequent fire, according to Gaza health officials. The Israeli army said the attack targeted two Hamas commanders, but unintentionally started a fire in a nearby area where civilians were taking shelter.

Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli brigadier general, said Friday that the offensive in Rafah will likely continue for weeks as Israeli forces destroy tunnels during controlled demolitions and fight in some parts of the city against remaining militants in an attempt to “ clean up” the area. .

To prevent Hamas from rearming, Israeli forces will likely remain in the border area near Egypt for the foreseeable future, said General Brom, who headed the military’s strategic planning division. Israeli officials, he said, have yet to move toward the only other viable option: transferring responsibility for security to a new administration.

Senior Israeli officials have expressed frustration with Netanyahu for failing to articulate a clear exit strategy from the war. In recent months, Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to areas such as Jabaliya – which they captured at the start of the war – to quell renewed Hamas insurgencies.

Until Israel has a diplomatic plan for Gaza, its forces will continue to be mired in ongoing battles against Palestinian militants in the area, General Brom said.

“All kinds of operations will be launched and they will all have a military logic, but they will not be part of any clear strategy,” General Brom said, adding that making a dent in the militant threat under an Israeli military regime in Gaza “could take years. “

Last week, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to curb its ongoing military offensive in Rafah, warning of the risk of serious harm to civilians, although some judges wrote that Israel could still conduct some military operations there. The Israeli army continued the operation despite such pressure, describing its campaign in Rafah as limited and precise.

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 a night operation on May 7 that marked the start of their assault. . about the area.

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

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

The crossing has been closed since it was captured by Israeli forces, and Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian authorities have failed to reach an agreement to resume operations there.

After pressure from the United States, Egypt this week began diverting some aid trucks to another crossing, Kerem Shalom, controlled by Israel, in an effort to ease a sharp drop in aid entering Gaza.

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