Devastated Rafah a ghost town as cease-fire and hostage release talks go on

July 8, 2024
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RAFAH, Gaza — Homes destroyed, buildings reduced to rubble and few signs of life other than sporadic gunfire. That’s all there is to see now in some parts of Rafah, the city in southern Gaza that was once home to more than 1 million people.

NBC News was given rare access to Rafah last week as Israeli forces continued to operate in the city while efforts ramped up to negotiate a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas that would bring fighting to an end in the enclave and see the release of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

Israel does not allow foreign journalists to enter Gaza independently so troops from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) guided NBC News and other American outlets into the enclave. NBC News agreed to share raw video with the IDF and blur the faces of any junior soldiers. It did not allow the IDF to view any of this written report.

After crossing into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom border crossing at the corner of Gaza, Israel and Egypt, the convoy traveled along the Philadelphi Corridor — the name for the southern border between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The roadway hugged the high-fenced border. Egyptian guard towers and flags could seen on the other side. 

Rafah is now an empty husk of a place. Almost every other building is completely levelled. Those that remain standing are pocked with small-arms fire and holes from artillery. The elements appeared to be creeping in to reclaim the city: sand from the desert and the beach blew through what remained of the streets, forming dunes that leant the place a sense of permanent abandonment.

At one point a man and a child peered out from behind a window curtain from the third floor of a wrecked building, but they quickly ducked back inside.

Gunfire at one point illustrated that fighting is ongoing in the area.

The Israeli military invited reporters for a tour of Rafah, where the military has been operating since May 6.
Israeli army vehicles transport a group of soldiers and journalists to Rafah. Ohad Zwigenberg / AFP – Getty Images

Until just a few months ago, Rafah, which had a prewar population of around 250,000, saw its number swell to over 1 million as many sought shelter in the city after being displaced from other parts of the enclave.

Many made temporary homes out of tents and in abandoned buildings, some ran market stalls while others volunteered to help the sick and injured or to provide programming for children grappling with trauma.

That all changed in May, when Israeli forces launched operations in the city, telling people to evacuate Rafah and move north to Muwasi in central Gaza, which the IDF designated a “safer” zone.

Now, much of Rafah lies in ruins and Israeli soldiers said they were currently focused on trying to block tunnels they say run below the city’s border with Egypt that are being used to smuggle contraband and weapons into Gaza.

IDF spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told reporters that some of the tunnels had been boobytrapped. He said that large parts of the city had “tunnels underneath.” He added that some of the shafts “were in the houses.”

The IDF was “examining the tunnels … in order to make sure we demolish it in the right way,” he added.

Hamas Tunnel System Rafah
The entrance of a tunnel system which the IDF said was used by Hamas in Rafah.NBC News

The Israeli military has said its forces have entered into the third phase of their operations in Gaza, although it has not set out exactly what that entails.

On Monday, the military said its forces had also launched fresh operations in the north, targeting Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives in the area of Gaza City. It added that troops were acting on intelligence that indicated the presence of “terrorist infrastructure, operatives, weapons and investigation and detention rooms, including in the UNRWA headquarters.”

NBC News was not immediately able to independently verify the IDF’s claims and a spokesperson for UNRWA, the United Nations agency for refugees, said they did not have any information on the attacks. UNRWA has repeatedly denied allegations that its facilities are being used by Hamas.

An NBC News crew on the ground said sounds of gunfire, airstrikes and artillery fire could be heard ringing out across the city.

The apparent resurgence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s presence in the north reflects a trend of militants reappearing in areas the IDF said it had previously cleared.

Massive destruction in Rafah after Israeli attacks
Large parts of the city of Rafah have been destroyed. Salma Kaddoumi / Anadolu via Getty Images

The U.S. has in the past warned that Israel it would not be able to eliminate Hamas’ presence in Gaza entirely, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had previously stated this as one of the goals of the war, along with securing the release of all the hostages.

Elsewhere, CIA Director William Burns is expected to travel to the Qatari capital of Doha this week to take part in talks aimed at ending the conflict, a senior administration official familiar with the plan told NBC News.

It comes after a U.S. senior administration official said last week that a “breakthrough” had been made in negotiations for a cease-fire deal, attributing the development to a shift in Hamas’ stance on a framework agreement. An Israeli official later warned that “expectations should be lowered” about the chance of a success.

The official said the framework deal was now “fully consistent” with the U.S.-drafted agreement passed by the United Nations Security Council last month.

But, they said it would still take time to negotiate steps to implement any agreement to end the conflict.

Health officials in the enclave say more than 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, which Israel said saw some 1,200 people were killed and around 250 others taken hostage.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, traveled to Washington over the weekend to take part in this week’s NATO Summit, which begins Tuesday.

He said he had “one clear goal” in mind, “to warn dozens of leaders and foreign ministers that they must stand now with full force and determination against Iran.”

Matt Bradley reported from Rafah and Chantal Da Silva from London.



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