Israeli tanks advance to heart of Rafah for first time

Israeli military denies strike on evacuation zone as Gaza authorities report 21 killed

Israel’s military denied striking a tent camp west of the city of Rafah on Tuesday after Gaza health authorities said Israeli tank shelling had killed at least 21 people there, in what Israel has designated a civilian evacuation zone.

Earlier, defying an appeal from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Israeli tanks advanced to the heart of Rafah for the first time.

Two days after an Israeli air strike on another camp stirred global condemnation, Gaza emergency services said four tank shells hit a cluster of tents in Al-Mawasi, a coastal strip that Israel had advised civilians in Rafah to move to for safety.

At least 12 of the dead were women, according to medical officials in the Hamas militant-run Palestinian enclave.

READ MORE

But Israel’s military later said in a statement: “Contrary to the reports from the last few hours, the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] did not strike in the Humanitarian Area in Al-Mawasi.”

Tuesday’s incident in Al-Mawasi occurred in an area designated by Israel as an expanded humanitarian zone. Israel had urged Palestinian civilians in Rafah, including around one million displaced by the almost eight-month-old war, to evacuate there when it launched its incursion in early May.

In central Rafah, tanks and armoured vehicles mounted with machineguns were spotted near Al-Awda mosque, a city landmark, witnesses told Reuters. The Israeli military said its forces continued to operate in the Rafah area, without commenting on reported advances into the city centre.

International unease over Israel’s three-week-old Rafah offensive has turned to outrage after an attack on Sunday set off a blaze in a tent camp in a western district of the city, killing at least 45 people.

Israel said it had targeted two senior Hamas operatives and had not intended to cause civilian casualties.

Global leaders voiced horror at the fire in a designated “humanitarian zone” of Rafah where families uprooted by fighting elsewhere had sought shelter and urged the implementation of a World Court order last week for a halt to Israel’s assault.

The Israeli military said it was investigating the possibility that munitions stored near a compound targeted by Sunday’s air strike may have ignited and touched off the blaze.

Residents said Rafah’s Tel Al-Sultan neighbourhood, the scene of Sunday’s night-time strike in which tents and shelters were set ablaze as families settled down to sleep, was still being bombarded.

“Tank shells are falling everywhere in Tel Al-Sultan. Many families have fled their houses in western Rafah under fire throughout the night,” one resident told Reuters via a chat app.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres on Tuesday added his voice to the chorus of condemnation of Sunday’s strike and again urged Israel to allow “the immediate, safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need”.

In a further blow to aid efforts, a part of the US military’s pier off Gaza’s coast has broken off, probably due to bad weather, rendering it temporarily inoperable, two US officials said. The United Nations has transported 137 trucks of aid from the pier since it began operations two weeks ago.

About one million people – many repeatedly displaced by shifting waves of the war – have fled the Israeli offensive in Rafah since early May, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) reported on Tuesday.

Israel seized control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt three weeks ago. Its tanks then entered some eastern districts of the city but had previously not rumbled into the centre in full force.

On Tuesday, witnesses also reported gun battles between Israeli troops and Hamas-led fighters in the area of the Zurub hilltop in western Rafah.

Witnesses in central Rafah said the Israeli military appeared to have brought in remote-operated armoured vehicles and there was no immediate sign of personnel in or around them. An Israeli military spokesperson had no immediate comment.

The Israeli military also said it operated overnight along the Philadelphi Corridor that separates Gaza from Egypt and troops were engaged in close-quarter combat, locating tunnel shafts, weapons and militant infrastructure.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, Gaza’s health ministry says. Israel launched its air and ground war after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israeli communities on October 7th, killing about 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel says it wants to root out the last large intact formations of Hamas fighters hunkered down in Rafah and rescue hostages it says are being held in the area. – Reuters