Israeli tanks reach Rafah city center, witnesses say

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Several Israeli tanks on Tuesday reached the center of Rafah, witnesses told Reuters, three weeks into a ground operation in the southern Gaza Strip city that has drawn intense scrutiny from neighboring Egypt and from the United States.

The tanks were spotted near Al-Awda Mosque, a central Rafah landmark, the witnesses said. The Israeli military did not immediately comment on their account, saying it would issue a statement about the Rafah operation later.

Since Israel launched its incursion into Rafah by seizing control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt three weeks ago, tanks had probed around the outskirts and entered some eastern districts but had not yet rumbled into the city in full force.

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In recent days, Israeli tanks have thrust toward western neighbourhoods and taken up positions on the Zurub hilltop in western Rafah. On Tuesday, witnesses reported gunbattles between Israeli troops and Hamas-led fighters in the Zurub area.

Witnesses in central Rafah said the Israeli military appeared to have brought in remote-operated armored vehicles and there was no immediate sign of personnel in or around them. An Israeli military spokesperson had no immediate comment.

The Israeli military said it operated overnight along the Philadelphi Corridor that separates Gaza from Egypt “based on intelligence indicating the presence of terror targets.”

Israeli troops were engaged in close-quarter combat and were locating tunnel shafts, weapons and militant infrastructure, it said in a statement.

Israel has kept up attacks despite the ruling by the International Court of Justice on Friday ordering it to stop given a high risk of civilian casualties. Israel has argued that the top UN court’s decision had left it some scope for military action there.

The ICJ also reiterated calls for the immediate and unconditional release of hostages held in Gaza by Hamas.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, Gaza’s health ministry says. 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.

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Israel says it wants to root out Hamas fighters holed up in Rafah and rescue hostages it says are being held in the area.

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