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Israel says Gaza war likely to last another 7 months as tanks probe Rafah

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CAIRO -

Israel sent tanks on raids into Rafah on Wednesday and predicted its war on Hamas in Gaza would continue all year, after Washington said the Rafah assault did not amount to a major ground operation that would trigger a change in U.S. policy.

Israeli tanks moved into the heart of Rafah for the first time on Tuesday despite an order from the International Court of Justice to end its attacks on the city, where many Palestinians had taken refuge from bombardment elsewhere.

The World Court said Israel had not explained how it would keep evacuees from Rafah safe and provide food, water and medicine. Its ruling also called on Hamas to release hostages taken from Israel on Oct. 7 immediately and unconditionally.

Rafah residents said Israeli tanks had pushed into Tel Al-Sultan in the west and Yibna and near Shaboura in the center before retreating towards a buffer zone on the border with Egypt, rather than staying put as they have in other offensives.

"We received distress calls from residents in Tel Al-Sultan where drones targeted displaced citizens as they moved from areas where they were staying toward the safe areas," the deputy director of ambulance and emergency services in Rafah, Haitham al Hams, said.

Palestinian health officials said 19 civilians had been killed in Israeli airstrikes and shelling across Gaza. Israel accuses Hamas militants of hiding among civilians, something Gaza's ruling Islamist group denies.

Health Minister Majed Abu Raman urged Washington to pressure Israel to open the Rafah crossing to aid, saying there was no indication that Israeli authorities would do so soon and that patients in besieged Gaza were dying for lack of treatment.

Israeli forces have achieved tactical control over the Philadelphi Corridor buffer zone that runs along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, an Israeli military official said on Wednesday.

Such control would prevent Hamas smuggling weapons into Gaza, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said earlier.

Fighting in Gaza will continue throughout 2024 at least, he added, signaling that Israel was not ready to end the war as demanded by Hamas, as part of a deal that would see the exchange of hostages it holds for Palestinian prisoners.

"The fighting in Rafah is not a pointless war," Hanegbi said, reiterating that the aim was to end Hamas rule in Gaza and stop it and its allies attacking Israel.

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment, adjunct to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi)

But U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday Israel needed to craft a post-war plan for Gaza and that without it, lawlessness, chaos and a Hamas comeback in the enclave could ensue.

The United States, Israel's closest ally, reiterated its opposition to a major ground offensive in Rafah on Tuesday while saying it did not believe such an operation was under way.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's Gaza offensive, the enclave's health ministry said.

Israel launched its air and ground war after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Ceasefire negotations struggle on

Mediator Qatar was expected to give Israel's latest ceasefire and hostage release proposal to Hamas on Tuesday, a person familiar with the issue said. There was no immediate word on Wednesday from Hamas, which has said talks are pointless unless Israel ends its offensive on Rafah.

The armed wing of Hamas and that of allies Islamic Jihad said they confronted invading forces in Rafah with anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs and blew up explosive devices they had planted, resulting in numerous successful hits.

The Israeli military said three Israeli soldiers were killed and three badly wounded. Public broadcaster Kan radio said an explosive device had been set off in a Rafah building.

Palestinian health officials said several people were wounded by Israeli fire and stores of aid were set ablaze in eastern Rafah, where residents said Israeli bombardment had destroyed many homes in an area Israel has ordered evacuated.

Gaza health ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra called for immediate safe pathways for fuel, medical aid and medical teams to Rafah and northern Gaza, where he said there was no help for the wounded.

Around a million Palestinians who had taken shelter in Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip have now fled after Israeli orders to evacuate, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA reported on Tuesday.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said it had evacuated its medical teams from its field hospital in the Al-Mawasi area, a designated civilian evacuation zone, because of continued bombardments.

In the nearby city of Khan Younis, an Israeli air strike killed three people overnight, including Salama Baraka, a former senior Hamas police officer, medics and Hamas media said.

Another killed four people, including two children, medics said.

In northern Gaza, Israeli forces shelled Gaza City neighbourhoods and moved deeper into Jabalia, where residents said large residential districts were destroyed.

Malnutrition has become widespread in Gaza as aid deliveries have slowed to a trickle.

(Reporting and writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi; additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Henriette Chacar and Clauda Tanios; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Mark Heinrich)

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