Fierce fighting on streets of Gaza’s Rafah

UN agency says 800,000 ‘forced to flee’ Rafah

Rafah, Palestinian Territories   -   Heavy clashes and bombardment rocked Rafah on Saturday, as Israel pressed an assault against Hamas militants that has led hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee the southern Gaza city. The Israeli military said its air forces hit more than 70 targets across the Gaza Strip while ground troops conducted “targeted raids” in eastern Rafah, killing 50 militants and locating dozens of tunnel shafts.

Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said it fired a barrage of rockets towards the Israeli city of Ashkelon and targeted an Israeli command centre at the Jabalia refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip. An AFP reporter said air strikes and artillery shells pounded eastern Rafah as warplanes criss-crossed over the city on Gaza’s border with Egypt. More than 10 days into what the army called a “limited” operation in Rafah that sparked an exodus of Palestinians, fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants has also flared again in northern Gaza.

Israel said in early January it had dismantled Hamas’s command structure in the north, but the army said Hamas -- whose October 7 attack sparked the war -- had been “in complete control here in Jabalia until we arrived a few days ago”.

Hamas slammed what it called Israel’s “intensified brutal raids” on Jabalia, saying they had killed dozens of civilians and wounded hundreds more while targeting schools and shelters. “The escalating crimes of the occupation will not succeed in breaking the will of our brave resistance or in deterring our proud people from their decision to stand firm on their land,” it said.

First aid via pier

The Israeli incursion into Rafah, launched despite overwhelming international opposition and as mediators were hoping for a breakthrough in stalled truce talks, has worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis, aid groups say.

With key land crossings closed or operating at limited capacity due to the fighting, some relief supplies began flowing into Gaza via a temporary, floating pier constructed by the United States. The Israeli army said 310 pallets began moving ashore in “the first entry of humanitarian aid through the floating pier”. Satellite pictures taken on Saturday showed more than a dozen trucks lining up on the approach road to the pier. In the coming days, around 500 tonnes of aid are expected to be delivered to Gaza through the pier, according to US Central Command.

The head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said Saturday that 800,000 people had been “forced to flee” Gaza’s far-southern city of Rafah since Israel began military operations there this month.

“Nearly half of the population of Rafah or 800,000 people are on the road having been forced to flee since the Israeli forces started the military operation in the area on 6 May,” UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said in a post on social media site X. Following the evacuation orders Gazans have fled to “the middle areas and Khan Younis including to destroyed buildings,” he said.

“Every time, they are forced to leave behind the few belongings they have ....Every time, they have to start from scratch, all over again.”

Israel has said the ground assault on Rafah was crucial to its fight against Palestinian militants, insisting it was the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza. Before the operation began, Israel told hundreds of thousands of Gazans sheltering in some eastern parts of the city to leave, describing its operation there as “limited”.

Israel’s closest ally the United States expressed firm objections to the expansion of operations in Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinian civilians were sheltering before the operation began.

Heavy clashes and bombardment rocked Rafah on Saturday, as Israel pressed an assault against Hamas militants.

An AFP reporter said air strikes and artillery shells pounded eastern parts of the city as warplanes criss-crossed above.

Lazzarini said people were fleeing to areas without water supplies or adequate sanitation.       

Al-Mawasi, a 14 square kilometre town on the coast, as well as the central city of Deir el- Balah, were “crammed” with recently displaced people, Lazzarini added.

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