Tanks reach Rafah’s centre as Israel presses assault

CAIRO: Israeli tanks entered the centre of Rafah for the first time on Tuesday, marking three weeks into a ground operation in the southern Gaza city that has drawn global condemnation.

The tanks were spotted near Al-Awda mosque, a central Rafah landmark, the witnesses told Reuters.

The Israeli military has continued to operate in the Rafah area without commenting on reported advancements in the city centre.

Overnight, its forces pounded the city with airstrikes and tank fire pressing its offensive despite an international outcry over an attack on Sunday that sparked a blaze in a tent camp, killing at least 45 Palestinians, more than half of them children, women and the elderly.

Since that strike, at least 26 more people have been killed by Israeli fire in Rafah.

Israeli tanks pushed towards western neighbourhoods and took positions on the Zurub hilltop in western Rafah in one of the worst nights of bombardment reported by residents.

On Tuesday, witnesses reported gunbattle between Israeli troops and Hamas-led freedom fighters in the Zurub area.

Israeli military appeared to have brought in remote-operated armoured vehicles and there was no immediate sign of personnel in or around them.

Since Israel launched its incursion by taking control of the border crossing with Egypt three weeks ago, tanks had probed around the edges of Rafah and entered some of its eastern districts but had not yet entered the city in full force.

Reacting to Sunday night’s attack in a camp where families displaced from assaults elsewhere in Gaza had sought shelter, global leaders urged the implementation of a World Court order to halt Israel’s assault.

Judges at the top United Nations court ordered Israel last Friday to immediately halt its military assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in a landmark emergency ruling in South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide.

Israel has kept up attacks despite the ruling by the UN ordering it to stop, arguing that the court’s ruling grants it “some scope for military action” there.

Residents said the Tel Al-Sultan area, the scene of Sunday’s deadly strike, was still being heavily 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 over a chat app.

Around one million people have fled the Israeli offensive in Rafah since early May, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) reported on Tuesday.

Spain, Ireland and Norway will officially recognise a Palestinian state on Tuesday, despite an angry reaction from Israel, which has found itself increasingly isolated after more than seven months of conflict in Gaza.

The three nations have painted their decision as a way to speed efforts to secure a ceasefire in Israel’s war with Hamas.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s horrific offensive so far. Israel launched the operation after Hamas-led freedom fighters attacked southern Israeli communities on October 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, as claimed by Israel.

Israel says it wants to root out Hamas fighters holed up in Rafah and rescue hostages it says are being held in the area.

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