Israeli military approaching full control of Rafah after stepping up bombardment across Gaza

Following two days of fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas, residents reported that Israeli tanks had begun to advance toward the northern and western parts of the city

The World Food Programme has warned that a massive public health crisis is looming in the coastal enclave due to the lack of clean water, food and medical supplies. Photograph: Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli forces were reported to be approaching full control of the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Friday, after a day of bombardment and intense fighting in which dozens of Palestinians were killed.

Following two days of fighting between Israeli forces and the militant group Hamas, including close-quarter combat, residents reported that Israeli tanks had begun to advance toward the northern and western parts of the city, Hamas’s last bastion of miltary control in Gaza.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said at least 38 Palestinians were killed in Israeli military strikes on Friday. Health officials said at least 18 were killed in Mawasi in western Rafah in what Palestinians said was a tank shelling that hit a tent housing displaced families.

“Our teams have so far dealt with 18 martyrs and 35 injuries due to the occupation’s targeting of displaced people’s tents in Mawasi #Rafah, west of the governorate,” said the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in a statement on X.

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The Israeli military said on Friday it was looking into the reported strikes on Mawasi and a separate incident in Gaza City.

Two rockets fired by militants in Gaza landed inside Israel on Friday.

The Israeli military in Rafah said it discovered a Hamas tunnel system more widespread and developed than anywhere else in Gaza: a massive labyrinth of tunnels to Egypt used for smuggling, combat tunnels and tunnels for senior leaders to live in, all of which were connected. Most of the tunnels had several levels and reached a depth of 30 meters.

A US-built floating pier for maritime aid deliveries to Gaza, damaged in stormy waters, was once again operational on Friday. But the World Health Organisation warned that scorching heat in the Gaza Strip could exacerbate health problems for displaced Palestinians.

Smoke from Israeli bombardment billows above Rafah. Photograph: Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty

The World Food Programme has warned that a massive public health crisis is looming in the coastal enclave due to the lack of clean water, food and medical supplies. “We’ve seen massive displacement over the last weeks and months, and we know that combination and the heat can cause a rise in diseases,” said Richard Peeperkorn, the WHO’s representative for Gaza and the West Bank.

“We have water contamination because of hot water, and we will have much more food spoilage because of the high temperature. We will get insect mosquitoes and flies, dehydration, heat stroke,” he said, noting that cases of diarrhoea were 25 times higher than usual.

The Gaza health ministry says more than 37,300 Palestinians have been killed since Israel’s war on Gaza began on October 7th. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and 253 hostages seized in the surprise Hamas attack on that day. It says 120 hostages remain in Hamas captivity but it is not known how many are alive.

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The assessment in Israel is that the fighting in Rafah will continue for another few weeks and once the battle is over Israeli forces will shift to relatively small-scale actions across the coastal enclave as Hamas shifts to guerilla operations.

Israel, it is believed, will then turn its attention to the northern front, with the aim of stopping the daily rocket fire from Hizbullah militants into the Galilee.

Israel hopes the end of the fighting in Rafah will provide Hizbullah with an excuse to reach an agreement to restore quiet along the border. In the absence of a deal, a military operation appears to be a question of time as Israeli leaders vow to restore security to allow the more than 60,000 displaced residents to return to their homes.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken, during talks with senior Israeli officials Ron Dermer and Tsahi Hanegbi, stressed that further escalation must be prevented on the Lebanese border.

The Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported that US special envoy Amos Hochstein, in talks in Lebanon and Israel this week aimed at reducing the tension, urged both sides to commit to prevent bombardments deep in each other’s territory and to stop the use of all kinds of drones.

The purchase of generators more than doubled this week after the head of Israel’s government company responsible for the country’s electricity network warned that in the event of war in the north, Hizbullah will be able to knock out Israel’s electricity network with relative ease. – Additional reporting: Reuters

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Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem