In Rafah we saw destruction and the limits of the Israeli strategy for Gaza

In Rafah we saw destruction and the limits of the Israeli strategy for Gaza
In Rafah we saw destruction and the limits of the Israeli strategy for Gaza

RAFAH, Gaza Strip – The armed convoy of jeeps packed with reporters rumbled into dusty Rafah, passing crumbling homes and shattered apartment buildings.

As we dismounted from our Humvees, a hush fell over this stretch of southern Gaza, near the border with Egypt.

Concrete slabs and twisted rebar dotted the scarred landscape.

The kittens ran through the rubble.

The streets that were once bustling with life were now a maze of rubble.

More than a million people have fled to escape an Israeli attack that began two months ago.

Many have been repeatedly displaced and now live in tent cities that stretch for miles, where they face an uncertain future as they grieve the loss of loved ones.

Palestinians fleeing Rafah in late May. Photo Abdel Kareem Hana/Associated Press

As Israel says it is ending its operation against Hamas in Rafah, the Israeli military invited foreign journalists to the city in a supervised visit.

The army says it has fought with precision and restraint against Hamas fighters embedded in civilian areas.

But death, destruction and mass displacement of civilians have left Israel increasingly diplomatically isolated.

More of 38,000 Palestinianhave been killed in the conflict, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

While that figure does not distinguish between civilians and Hamas fighters, it includes the dozens killed in May when Israel dropped a pair of 250-pound bombs on a tent camp in Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahuhas put the number of Palestinians killed at around 30,000 and said about half were civilians.

The Israeli invasion was aimed at destroying Hamas and free their hostages.

So far, he has not achieved either of these things.

According to the military count, he has killed at least 900 members from the Hamas brigade in Rafah already 15,000 fighters of Hamas in total.

But three months after Netanyahu declared that “total victory is within reach,” the military acknowledges that the Rafah siege has eliminated only a third from the Hamas brigade.

Hamas leadership remains intact.

And around 120 hostages are believed to remain somewhere in Gaza, although it is believed that around One third are dead.

Salida

Palestinians who fled the city have no idea when they will return or what they will find when they do.

Marwan Shaath, 57, said he and his family had left their three-storey home behind.

“It was meant to be the family home for generations to come,” he said in an interview.

His friends have sent him photos of what’s left.

“It is badly damaged. Half of it has already fallen. There were no walls or windows and a large part of it was burnt.”

Fighting in Rafah has been intense, Israeli officials said, with Hamas laying hundreds of booby traps.

Officials showed us a video they said showed a house equipped with 190-litre drinking water tanks filled with remote-controlled explosives.

On Friday, the Israeli military said it had killed dozens of Hamas fighters in Rafah, and Col. Yair Zuckerman, commander of the Nahal Infantry Brigade fighting in Rafah, mocked his Hamas counterpart as he briefed us.

“Where is the commander of the Rafah brigade?” he asked.

The military supervised our visit to Rafah.

We had to stay with the convoy, although Israeli officials did not review or censor our work.

A Hamas representative did not respond to text messages seeking comment.

We saw the outskirts of a neighborhood devastated by the fighting.

It was clear where Israeli forces had attacked Rafah from the south, destroying corridors for their tanks and troops.

The air was laden with sand and fine debris.

Destruction

Artillery, fighter planes and bulldozers had razed buildings or reduced them to shells.

From where we were, the scale was incalculable, even if it had been measured by satellites.

We saw dozens of aid trucks, but it was impossible to assess the relief efforts, which the United Nations has criticized as woefully inadequate.and inadequate.

Israel has accused Hamas of using Palestinians as human shieldsplacing rocket launchers near schools and building tunnels beneath crowded neighborhoods, including in Rafah.

The military showed us photographs of cameras placed around a neighborhood, which officials say allowed Hamas to monitor Israeli forces and plan attacks against them.

Israeli soldiers say they found Hamas combat equipment scattered in many houses, along with advanced weapons as Russian-made surface-to-air missiles.

Israeli officials argue that such tactics justify fighting in sometimes crowded neighborhoods where Hamas fighters hide and store weapons.

But Hamas’s guerrilla tactics also reflect a power imbalance between a sophisticated army and a militia that relies on smuggled weapons.

Much of that smuggling, Israeli officials say, is happening not far from where we were, at the Rafah border crossing and in the tunnels into Egypt.

Stopping the flow of weapons was a key reason for Israel’s operation in Rafah.

Israeli officials have described these smuggling routes asHamas’s “oxygen.”

Despite a long-running Israeli blockade and an Egyptian campaign to stop illegal smuggling, Israel’s military spokesman told us that soldiers had found tunnels (he did not say how many) along the border.

It was unclear how many of those tunnels were active before the war began.

“A lot of terrorist infrastructure has been built along the border,” said Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the military’s chief spokesman.

Responsibilities

Just over a football field from the border, the military led us to a sewer-like entrance to a tunnel between a couple of damaged houses.

Destroying these tunnels can be devastating to the buildings above them.

“We are ordinary people living on the land,” Shaath said.

“I don’t know what’s going on underground, and whatever’s happening is not my fault as a civilian.”

More than two dozen Israeli soldiers have been killed fighting in southern Gaza, including eight last month in an explosion in Rafah that was one of the deadliest attacks on Israeli soldiers since the ground invasion war in Gaza began.

While we were there, Israeli sniper fire occasionally crackled.

Israeli officials have identified nearly 700 soldiers who have been killed since the Oct. 7 terror attacks, when Hamas-led assailants stormed into Israel, taking hostages and killing civilians, including women and children.

Authorities say around 1,200 people died that day.

One of them was Colonel Jonathan Steinberg, the former commander of Nahal.

Hours after his death, Zuckerman replaced him.

He told us that he and his troops planned to finish the job in Rafah.

We climbed into the jeeps and headed to another nearby spot, with a view of the rest of Rafah stretching out to the sea.

Hagari climbed to the top of a small sandy hill.

He pointed towards Tal al-Sultan, another neighborhood in Rafah.

Out there, he said, were hostages.

A small group of Americans could be among them.

Freeing them, he said, required rescue operations or military pressure.

“We will bring the hostages back,” he told us.

“Any of your countries would do the same after October 7.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

 
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