In Rafah we witnessed the destruction and the limits of Israel’s Gaza strategy

The convoy of armored jeeps carrying journalists roared into dusty Rafah, passing collapsed homes and destroyed apartment buildings.

When we climbed out of the Humvee, this patch of southern Gaza near the Egyptian border was silent. Slabs of concrete and twisted rebar dotted the scarred ground. Kittens scurried among the wreckage.

The once bustling streets were now a maze of rubble and deserted.

More than one million people fled the Israeli onslaught that began two months ago, many having been forced to flee repeatedly and now living in tent cities stretching for miles, mourning the loss of loved ones and facing an uncertain future.

Israel says it is scaling back its operations against Hamas in Rafah and has invited foreign journalists to visit the city under supervision, with the Israeli army saying it has been fighting Hamas fighters hiding out in civilian areas with precision and restraint.

But civilian deaths, destruction and mass displacement have left Israel increasingly isolated diplomatically.

More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, a figure that does not distinguish between civilians and Hamas fighters but includes dozens killed when Israel dropped two 250-pound bombs on the Rafah tent camp in May.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the Palestinian death toll at about 30,000. And he said, About half were civilians.

The Israeli invasion was aimed at destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages. So far, it has achieved neither.

At least 900 Hamas brigades in Rafah were killed, according to military figures, and 15,000 Hamas fighters overall.

But three months after Netanyahu declared that “total victory is within reach,” the military acknowledges that only a third of the Hamas brigades have been eliminated in the siege of Rafah. The Hamas leadership remains intact. And while around 120 hostages are thought to remain somewhere in Gaza, about a third are believed to be dead.

Palestinians who fled the city have no idea when they’ll be able to return, or what they’ll find when they do. Marwan Shaath, 57, said he and his family left behind their three-story home. “It was meant to be our family home for generations,” he said in an interview. Friends sent him photos of what was left of the house. “It’s badly damaged. Half of it has already collapsed. There are no walls or windows, and most of it is burned.”

Israeli officials say fighting in Rafah is intense and that Hamas has set up hundreds of booby traps, and they showed us a video they said showed a home with a 50-gallon drinking water tank packed with remote-controlled explosives.

On Friday, the Israeli military announced that it had killed dozens of Hamas fighters in Rafah, and Colonel Yair Zukerman, commander of the Nahal Infantry Brigade fighting in Rafah, mocked his Hamas colleagues as he briefed us.

“Where is the commander of the Rafah Brigade?” he asked.

The military supervised our visit to Rafah. We had to stay with the convoy, but Israeli authorities did not verify or censor our activities. Hamas representatives did not respond to text messages seeking comment.

We saw the surrounding area of ​​the battle-ravaged neighborhood, clearly where Israeli forces had entered Rafah from the south and destroyed routes for tanks and soldiers. The air was full of sand and fine debris.

Artillery, fighter jets and bulldozers flattened buildings or turned them into shells. The scale was impossible to gauge from where we were standing, but satellite images made it possible. We saw dozens of aid trucks, but it was impossible to assess the relief effort that the UN has criticized as woefully inadequate.

Israel accuses Hamas of using Palestinians as human shields, placing rocket launchers near schools and building tunnels under crowded residential areas, including Rafah.

The army showed us photos of cameras installed in the neighborhood that officials say allowed Hamas to monitor Israeli forces and plan attacks. Israeli soldiers said they found Hamas war kit strewn throughout many homes, along with modern weaponry, including Russian-made surface-to-air missiles.

Israeli officials argue such tactics justify fighting in crowded areas where Hamas fighters often hide their weapons.

But Hamas’ guerilla tactics reflect an imbalance of power between its sophisticated military and militias that rely on smuggled weapons.

Israeli officials said much of this smuggling takes place at the Rafah border crossing, not far from where we were standing, and through tunnels into Egypt. Blocking the flow of weapons was the main reason for Israel’s operation in Rafah. Israeli officials call these smuggling routes Hamas’ “oxygen.”

Despite a years-long Israeli blockade and an Egyptian campaign to stop underground smuggling, an Israeli army spokesman said soldiers had found tunnels along the border, without giving a number, and it was unclear how many of them were operational before the war began.

“A number of counter-terrorism facilities have been established near the border,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Daniel Hagari said.

About a football field from the border, the military took us to the mouth of a manhole-like tunnel between two destroyed houses — destroying these tunnels could cause devastating damage to the buildings above.

“We are normal people living on the surface,” Schaas said, “I don’t know what’s going on underground, and whatever is going on is not my fault as a civilian.”

More than 20 Israeli soldiers have been killed in fighting in southern Gaza, including eight killed in an explosion in Rafah last month, one of the deadliest attacks on Israeli soldiers since the start of the ground invasion war in Gaza. While we were there, there were occasional crackles of Israeli sniper fire.

Israel The authorities About 700 soldiers have been killed since the Oct. 7 terror attack, when Hamas-led militants infiltrated Israel, taking hostages and killing civilians, including women and children. About 1,200 people were killed that day, authorities said.

One of them was Nahal’s former commander, Col. Jonathan Steinberg, who died hours after his death and was replaced by Col. Zuckerman, who told us that he and his unit intended to terminate their mission in Rafah.

We piled into a jeep and drove to another nearby location where the views of the rest of Rafah stretched out to the sea, and Admiral Hagari climbed to the top of a small sand hill.

He pointed to Tal al-Sultan, another part of Rafah district, where hostages were being held, he said, including possibly a few Americans.

He said a rescue operation or military pressure was needed to free them.

“We will bring back the hostages,” he told us. “After October 7, we will do the same in any of your countries.”

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