Israeli battle tanks take position in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on May 13, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: Israel battled Hamas in Gaza on Monday, including in far-southern Rafah, despite US warnings against a full-scale invasion of the crowded city and of the threat of post-war “anarchy” across the Palestinian territory.

Clashes also raged in northern and central areas of the besieged Gaza Strip, AFP correspondents and witnesses said, as Israel prepared to mark a sombre Independence Day, beginning Monday night, more than seven months into the war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack.

Israeli forces pushed deep into the ruins of Gaza’s northern edge on Monday to recapture an area where they claimed to have dismantled Hamas months ago, while in the south tanks and troops pushed across a highway into Rafah.

Some of the most intense fighting for weeks is raging in both the north and south. Israeli operations in Rafah, which borders Egypt, have closed a main crossing point for aid, which humanitarian groups say is worsening an already dire situation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Memorial Day event that “our war of independence is not over yet. It continues even today ... We are determined to win this struggle.”

AFP correspondents reported helicopter strikes and heavy artillery shelling in the east of Rafah, as well as battles in northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp and Gaza City’s Zeitun neighbourhood.

People are handed out food portions from a large pot at a public kitchen in Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on May 13. Image Credit: AFP

Israel last week defied international warnings, including from its top ally Washington, and sent tanks and soldiers into the east of Rafah, a city on the Egyptian border where some 1.4 million Palestinians had sought shelter.

This has sparked an exodus of nearly 360,000 people from Rafah so far, said the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, which warned that “no place is safe” in the largely devastated territory.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that Washington had not seen any credible Israeli plan to protect civilians in Rafah, and that “we also haven’t seen a plan for what happens the day after this war in Gaza ends”.

“Israel’s 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,” he told NBC.

Fighting has raged in northern Gaza where - months after Israel declared Hamas’s command structure had been dismantled - an Israeli army spokesman said there were “attempts by Hamas to rebuild its military capabilities”.

Evacuation orders

Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades, also said that its militants were engaged in ground battles in Rafah and Jabalia.

A strike overnight on a house in Rafah killed at least four people, said the city’s Kuwaiti hospital which had received the bodies.

Rafah residents on Monday received more evacuation orders through phone calls and text messages, sending yet more people to start packing and leave their homes, witnesses said.

While Israel has vowed to destroy remaining Hamas forces in Rafah, the New York Times cited unnamed US officials as saying that both US and Israeli intelligence suggested the group’s leader Yahya Sinwar was not hiding there.

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Palestinian pack their belongings as they prepare to flee Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 13. Image Credit: AFP

Sinwar - who has not been seen since the October 7 attack which Israel says he orchestrated - “most likely never left the tunnel network” under southern Gaza’s main city Khan Yunis, the Times said.

Amid the fighting, Egyptian, Qatari and American mediation efforts towards a truce appeared to have stalled.

UN chief Antonio Guterres urged on Sunday “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the unconditional release of all hostages and an immediate surge in humanitarian aid” into Gaza.

In Rafah, Israel stepped up aerial and ground bombardments on the eastern areas of the city, killing people in an airstrike on a house in the Brazil neighbourhood.

Israel ordered residents out of the east of Rafah last week, and extended that order to central areas in recent days, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in search of safety.

Residents said Israeli air and ground bombardments were intensifying and tanks had cut off the main north-south Salahuddin Road dividing east of the city from the central area.

“The tanks cut the Salahuddin road east of the city, the forces are now in the southeast side, building up near the built-up area. The situation is dreadful and the sounds of explosions never stopped,” said Bassam, 57, from the Shaboura neighbourhood in Rafah.

“People continue to leave Rafah...no place looks safe now and people do not want to escape at the last minute should tanks make sudden incursions and moving out becomes too late,” he told Reuters via a chat app.

UNRWA, the main United Nations aid agency in Gaza, estimated that about 360,000 people had fled the southern city since the Israeli military gave its first evacuation order a week ago.

In Gaza city, Al-Ahli Arab Hospital medics said five people were killed in an airstrike on a house.

Bomb shipment on hold

The assault on Rafah has caused one of the biggest splits in decades between Israel and its main ally the United States, which paused some deliveries of weapons for the first time since the war began. Washington says Israel must not assault Rafah without a plan to protect civilians, which it has yet to see.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant’s office said on Monday he had briefed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the “precise operation” in the Rafah area.

Jack Lew, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, signalled on Sunday that the Rafah incursion was still on a scale that Washington considers acceptable.

Hamas’ armed wing said its fighters were engaged in gun battles with Israeli forces in one of the streets east of Rafah, and in the east of Jabalia.

In Israel, the military sounded sirens several times in areas near Gaza, warning of potential Palestinian cross-border rocket and or mortar launches.

Hamas and the armed wing of Islamic Jihad said in a joint statement that they fired mortar bombs against Israeli forces massing inside the Rafah crossing, which Israel captured last week.

Moment of silence

As Israel marked its Memorial Day, sirens sounded across the country at 11 am (0800 GMT), prompting a two-minute silence in honour of fallen soldiers and civilian victims of attacks.

Memorial Day comes ahead of the country’s 76th Independence Day, beginning Monday at sunset, when Israelis celebrate the creation of their state in 1948.

Palestinians remember Israel’s establishment as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of people were expelled or pushed out of their homes amid the war, and commemorate it annually on May 15.

The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants also seized some 250 hostages, scores of whom were freed during a week-long truce in November. Israel estimates 128 captives remain in Gaza, including 36 who the military says are dead.

Israel’s bombardment and offensive in Gaza have killed at least 35,034 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel’s military says 272 soldiers have been killed since the start of the ground offensive in Gaza on October 27.

‘We wish for death’

The war and siege have displaced most Gazans, many multiple times.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said in a post on X on Sunday that Israel’s latest evacuation orders were “forcing people in Rafah to flee anywhere and everywhere”.

Umm Mohammed Al Mughayyir, who has had to move her family seven times to escape the fighting, said: “We have reached a point where we wish for death.”

Residents were told to head to the Al-Mawasi “humanitarian zone” on the coast northwest of Rafah, though aid groups have warned it is not ready for an influx of people.

Hisham Adwan, spokesman for the Gaza crossings authority, told AFP on Sunday the Rafah crossing with Egypt has remained closed since Israeli troops seized its Palestinian side on Tuesday, “preventing the entry of humanitarian aid”.

The health ministry said Monday that Gaza’s health system is “hours away” from collapse, after fighting has blocked fuel shipments through key crossings.

Israel’s military said Sunday it had opened a new border crossing into northern Gaza as “part of the effort to increase aid routes”.

In a sign of growing regional tensions, Egypt - the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979 - said it would formally support an International Court of Justice case brought by South Africa, accusing Israel of genocidal acts in the war.