Israeli forces step up bombing of Rafah as tanks try to push west

With no sign of progress in mediators’ arduous efforts to broker a ceasefire in the Gaza war, Israeli tanks and warplanes blasted central and southern areas of the enclave overnight, killing at least 23 Palestinians, local medics said.

Qatari and Egyptian mediators backed by the United States, have tried to halt hostilities, secure the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinians jailed in Israel, and get aid flowing into shattered Gaza to ease a humanitarian crisis. But sources close to the talks said there were no still signs of a breakthrough.

Residents said Israeli tanks advanced further west in the embattled southern city of Rafah skirting the border with Egypt amid fierce gunbattles between Israeli troops and Hamas-led Palestinian militants.

Palestinian health officials said two Palestinians were killed and several wounded in western Rafah from tank shelling there. In central Gaza, Palestinians medics said at least 15 people died overnight in Israeli assaults.

Residents said armoured forces that have taken control along Rafah’s border line made several raids into the centre and west of the city, wounding several civilians who had been trapped inside their homes and were taken by surprise.

Some residents said tanks were newly present in Al-Izba, an area of far southwest Rafah close to the Mediterranean coast.

“I think the occupation forces are trying to reach the beach area of Rafah. The raids and the bombing overnight were tactical, they entered under heavy fire and then retreated,” one Palestinian resident told Reuters via a chat app.

“It was one of the worst nights, some people were wounded inside their homes, before being evacuated this morning.”

Later on Friday, an Israeli air strike on a house in the southern city of Khan Younis, north of Rafah, killed six people and wounded several, including children, medics said.

Israeli forces were also operating inside the Al-Bureij camp in the central Gaza Strip, while subjecting the al-Maghazi and al-Nuseirat and the adjacent city of Deir al-Balah under heavy aerial and tank bombardment, Palestinian medics reported.

The armed wings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and smaller militant groups said their fighters carried out attacks on Israeli forces in several central and southern areas.

In its latest update, the Israeli military said it had killed “dozens” of militants, located more tunnels and destroyed more militant infrastructure in continuing operations in al-Bureij and Deir al-Balah in central Gaza.

Israel has ruled out peace until Hamas is eradicated, and much of Gaza lies in ruins, but Hamas has proven resilient, with militants resurfacing to fight in areas where Israeli forces had previously declared to have defeated them and pulled back.

On Thursday, Israel hit a Gaza school building with what it said was a targeted airstrike on up to 30 Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters inside, and a Hamas official said 40 people were killed including women and children sheltering at the U.N. site.

Israel’s military said it had identified nine of 30 militants targeted in the strike. The U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) said its school was being used as a shelter for 6,000 displaced people at the time.

“It’s just another horrific example of the price that civilians are paying, that Palestinian men, women and children who are just trying to survive, who are being forced to move around in sort of a death circle around Gaza, trying to find safety, are paying,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

Hamas precipitated the war when militants stormed across the border into southern Israel last Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking over 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. About half the hostages were freed in the November truce.

Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Gaza since then has killed over 36,000 people, according to health officials in the coastal enclave, who say thousands more dead are feared buried under rubble, with most of the 2.3 million population displaced.

Since a brief week-long truce in November, repeated attempts to arrange a ceasefire have failed, with Hamas insisting on its demand for a permanent end to the conflict and full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel says it is prepared to discuss only temporary pauses in the fighting until the militant group is destroyed and Gaza poses no more security threat.

“We have shown all the flexibility needed to reach a deal but the Israeli occupation continues to refuse any commitment to end the aggression and pull its forces from the Gaza Strip,” a Hamas official told Reuters.

“The occupation and the Americans are to blame for the absence of a deal so far because they don’t want this war on our people to end,” he said

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