Street battles, Israeli strikes rock Gaza's Rafah

Israeli soldiers are seen during military operations in the Gaza Strip. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The Israeli army pushed on with its mission to defeat Hamas in the war raging since October 7, despite a global outcry that intensified after a deadly strike set ablaze a crowded camp on Sunday night.

Rafah. Street fighting and Israeli bombardment rocked Rafah in the Gaza Strip Wednesday, residents and officials said, a day after Israeli tanks rolled into the centre of the city near the Egyptian border.

The Israeli army pushed on with its mission to defeat Hamas in the war raging since October 7, despite a global outcry that intensified after a deadly strike set ablaze a crowded camp on Sunday night.

The UN Security Council was set to meet for a second day of emergency talks after that strike ignited a fire that Gaza officials said killed 45 people and injured about 250.

UN chief Antonio Guterres was among the many leaders to voice revulsion at the bloodshed, demanding that "this horror must stop".

Israel's National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said Wednesday the war could go on until the year's end.

"We may have another seven months of fighting to consolidate our success and achieve what we have defined as the destruction of Hamas's power and military capabilities," Hanegbi said.

But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel needed a post-war plan "as quickly as possible".

"In the absence of a plan for the day after, there won't be a day after," he said.

Fighting has again flared in Rafah, where an AFP reporter said an Israeli helicopter fired guns and missiles at targets in the city centre.

Hamas's military wing said it was firing rockets at Israeli troops.

AFPTV footage showed Palestinians with bloodied midriffs and bandaged limbs after being wounded in strikes near Khan Yunis, close to Rafah, being taken to the European Hospital on makeshift gurneys.

"The rockets fell directly on us. I was hurled three metres (yards)... I don't know how I managed to get up on my feet," said one who did not give his name.

The army said three soldiers were killed in Rafah on Tuesday, raising to 292 its death toll in the Gaza campaign since the ground offensive started on October 27.

The United States has been among the countries urging Israel to refrain from a full-scale offensive into Rafah, the last Gaza city to see ground fighting, because of the risk to civilians.

However, the White House said Tuesday that so far it had not seen Israel cross President Joe Biden's "red lines", with National Security Council spokesman John Kirby saying: "We have not seen them smash into Rafah.

"We have not seen them go in with large units, large numbers of troops, in columns and formations in some sort of coordinated manoeuvre against multiple targets on the ground," Kirby told a media briefing.

Spiralling death toll

A steady stream of civilians has been fleeing Rafah, the new hotspot in the gruelling war, many carrying their belongings on their shoulders, in cars or on donkey-drawn carts.

Before the Rafah offensive began on May 7, the United Nations had warned that up to 1.4 million people were sheltering there. Since then, one million have fled the area, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Sunday's strike and ensuing fire a "tragic accident", while the army said it had targeted a Hamas compound and killed two senior members of the group.

Israel's military said it was investigating the strike, and its spokesman Daniel Hagari said on Tuesday that "our munition alone could not have ignited a fire of this size".

Gaza civil defence agency official Mohammad al-Mughayyir said 21 more people were killed in a similar strike Tuesday "targeting the tents of displaced people" in western Rafah.

The army denied this and said it "did not strike in the humanitarian area in Al-Mawasi", an area it had designated for displaced people from Rafah to shelter.

The Gaza war was sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,171 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

New fighting also hit other areas of Gaza, a besieged territory of 2.4 million people.

In the north, Israeli military vehicles unleashed intense gunfire east of Gaza City, an AFP reporter said, and residents reported air strikes on parts of Jabalia.

Three bodies were recovered from a house in Khan Yunis after it was shelled, the civil defence agency said.

UN Security Council

Nearly eight months into the deadliest Gaza war, Israel has faced ever louder opposition and cases before two Netherlands-based international courts.

At the UN Security Council, Algeria has presented a draft resolution that "demands an immediate ceasefire respected by all parties" and the release of all hostages.

Algeria's ambassador to the United Nations, Amar Bendjama, has not specified when he hopes to put the draft to a vote. 

Chinese ambassador Fu Cong expressed hope for a vote this week as President Xi Jinping told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Beijing he was "deeply pained" by the situation in Gaza.

French UN ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said "it's high time for this council to take action. This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of emergency."

US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, when asked about the draft resolution, said: "We're waiting to see it and then we'll react to it."

Brazil, whose ties with Israel have soured over the war, on Wednesday recalled its ambassador, further raising tensions between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the World Central Kitchen nonprofit organisation said it was stopping its operations in Rafah because of "ongoing attacks" in the southern city.