Israeli Forces Push Deeper Into Rafah

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Israel’s military said on Thursday that it was fighting in neighborhoods near the heart of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, apparently expanding its campaign against Hamas in a week when Israel has faced mounting diplomatic and legal pressure over its war effort.

The fighting came as the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the top court of the United Nations, said it would respond on Friday to a South African petition for the court to order an immediate halt to the ground assault in Rafah. The court has no means of enforcing its orders, but a call for Israel to rein in its offensive would be the latest setback to the country on the international stage.

The Israeli military said Thursday that it was operating in the Brazil and Shaboura areas of Rafah, which are roughly halfway between Israel’s southwestern border and the Mediterranean coast. When Israel’s push into Rafah began on May 6, the military said it was carrying out a limited operation against Hamas battalions in the city, which lies along Gaza’s border with Egypt.

Israeli troops were “continuing operational activity in specific areas of Rafah,” the military said in a statement, adding that it was “making every effort to prevent harm to civilians” and moving in “after the civilian population in the area was evacuated.”

Around 815,000 people have already left Rafah as a result of the fighting and Israeli warnings to flee, the United Nations said this week, amounting to well over half the number of Palestinians who had crowded into the city in recent months to escape fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

Israeli forces had dismantled several tunnels and killed fighters in “close-quarters encounters,” the military said. It was not possible to independently verify Israel’s account of the fighting. Hamas did not immediately comment on the fighting on Thursday.

On the streets of Rafah on Monday.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has said that an assault on Rafah was essential to defeating remaining Hamas battalions and dismantling the group’s infrastructure in Gaza, including tunnels beneath the city. Israel also wants to destroy tunnels running from Gaza into Egypt beneath a buffer strip on the southern edge of the territory. Israeli forces are advancing along the buffer strip, known in Israel as the Philadelphi Corridor, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. The Israeli military said it would not comment on the location of its forces.

President Biden has warned Mr. Netanyahu against launching a large military operation in Rafah without a plan for its civilian population, including the more than one million people who moved there to escape bombardment and fighting elsewhere.

Most of the Palestinians who have fled Rafah in recent weeks have moved to a zone that includes the cities of Khan Younis and Deir al Balah and the coastal village of Al-Mawasi. The Israeli authorities said they had set up and equipped humanitarian zones for displaced people.

Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of the main U.N. agency that aids Palestinians, UNRWA, said this week that the areas newly displaced people were arriving in were desperately overcrowded and lack the “minimal conditions to provide emergency humanitarian assistance in a safe and dignified manner.”

Gaza’s Ministry of Health said that more than 100 people had been killed in Gaza between Monday and Wednesday, and that hundreds of others had been wounded. It was not possible to corroborate the figures independently.

The Israeli military also said it was operating in central Gaza and in Jabaliya in northern Gaza. Israel withdrew its forces from much of the territory earlier in the year but has returned to parts of northern and central Gaza to fight what it says are attempts by Hamas to reconstitute its forces there.

International attention has focused this week on announcements by Norway, Spain and Ireland that they would recognize an independent Palestinian state, and on a decision by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court on Monday to seek arrest warrants for leaders of both Israel and Hamas for war crimes.

Israel has denounced those moves and said it would press on with its campaign to eliminate Hamas.

But some military analysts have raised questions about whether Israel’s military operation in Rafah can deal a decisive blow to Hamas, saying that many of the group’s fighters, wary of engaging in a direct confrontation with a superior military force, had likely moved out of the city before the long-anticipated incursion began.

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