Israel battles regrouped Hamas in northern Gaza; U.S. warns Rafah assault won’t eliminate militants

May 13, 2024
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The Israeli military intensified its attacks on northern Gaza on Monday, battling a regrouped Hamas in areas it said it had cleared and renewing questions over Israeli strategy in the war as the United States issued some of its harshest public criticism yet.

Israel has insisted that it must invade Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where more than one million people had sought refuge, in order to accomplish its core objective of “eliminating” Hamas’ presence in the enclave after months of fighting further north.

But Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Sunday that even a full-scale ground assault on Rafah would fail to achieve that goal.

Israel is “on the trajectory, potentially, to inherit an insurgency with many armed Hamas left or, if it leaves, a vacuum filled by chaos, filled by anarchy and probably refilled by Hamas,” Blinken said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Even if it goes in and takes heavy action in Rafah, there will still be thousands of armed Hamas left,” he said, noting that “we’ve seen, in areas that Israel has cleared in the north, even in Khan Younis, Hamas coming back.”

Already, Blinken said, Israel’s offensive has led to a “horrible loss of life of innocent civilians,” with the death toll in Gaza soaring over the weekend past 35,000 people killed, according to local health officials. He also noted the Biden administration’s recent report which found that Israel’s use of weapons provided by the U.S. likely violated international humanitarian law.

Civilians evacuate northern Gaza
Displaced Palestinians evacuate from the Tal al-Zaatar camp for Palestinian refugees in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday.AFP via Getty Images

Blinken said that instead of focusing on an assault on Rafah, Israel should prioritize presenting a credible post-war plan for future security and governance in Gaza. He said the Biden administration had yet to see any credible plans for how to ensure the safety of civilians in Rafah ahead of any full-scale invasion or for what happens once the war comes to a end.

“We’ve been talking to them about a much better way of getting an enduring result, enduring security,” said Blinken, who spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday in a call reiterating U.S. opposition to “a major military ground operation in Rafah,” according to the State Department.

His comments came amid mounting splits between the two close allies over Israel’s handling of its deadly offensive in Gaza.

Talks for a new cease-fire deal have seemingly broken down, and President Joe Biden threatened last week to halt the shipment of certain arms to Israel should it launch a full-scale assault on Rafah.

Nearly 360,000 people have fled the city since Israel ordered a partial evacuation a week ago and sent tanks in, according to the United Nations.

That led to the closing of two main border crossings into the Palestinian enclave, sparking outcry from doctors and aid groups.

The IDF said last week the Kerem Shalom crossing — where four IDF soldiers had been killed in a Hamas mortar attack — had reopened and announced Sunday the opening of a separate crossing in northern Gaza, the “Western Erez” crossing, in coordination with the U.S.

Still, humanitarian groups have said the reopening of the Rafah crossing is essential for the entry of aid into the south, where hundreds of thousands of people are sheltering with limited food and other supplies.

Meanwhile northern Gaza has been isolated for months, with the head of the World Food Programme telling NBC News earlier this month that she believes there is a “full-blown famine” in the area.

Yet despite the toll of Israel’s military operation on civilians in Gaza, Hamas appeared far from beaten.

The Israel Defense Forces said Sunday its forces had launched an operation around the Jabaliya camp in northern Gaza after issuing calls for civilians to “temporarily evacuate” the area. The IDF said it was acting on intelligence regarding “attempts by Hamas to reassemble its terrorist infrastructure and operatives in the area.”

The IDF said the assault was unfolding alongside military action in the area of Zeitoun in Gaza City against a Hamas presence as operations also continued in parts of eastern Rafah.

Palestinian children play in the remains of a charred vehicle in Rafah
Children play in a burned out minivan in Rafah, southern Gaza on Sunday.AFP – Getty Images

Hamas‘ military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, said in a statement posted to Telegram early Monday that militants were still “engaged in fierce clashes” east of the Jabaliya camp, as well as in the south.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan suggested in a phone call with his Israeli counterpart Tzachi Hanegbi on Sunday that instead of invading Rafah, “alternative courses of action” could be necessary to ensure Hamas is defeated “everywhere in Gaza,” according to a readout of the call. Hanegbi said Israel was taking its closest ally’s concerns into account, according to the White House.

Israeli forces launched their assault following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, in which some 1,200 people were killed and around 250 others were taken hostage, according to Israeli officials, marking a major escalation in a decadeslong conflict. More than 130 people remain held captive in Gaza, with at least a quarter of the hostages believed to be dead.

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