Gaza Offensive to Last at Least to Year’s End, Israeli Official Says

Israel’s national security adviser said Wednesday that he expected military operations in Gaza to continue through at least the end of the year, appearing to dismiss the idea that the war could come to an end after the military offensive against Hamas in Rafah.

“We expect another seven months of combat in order to shore up our achievement and realize what we define as the destruction of Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s military and governing capabilities,” Tzachi Hanegbi, the national security adviser, said in a radio interview with Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster.

The Israeli military also said Wednesday that it had seized “operational control” over a buffer strip along the southern edge of Gaza to prevent cross-border smuggling with Egypt that would allow Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups to rearm. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that controlling the corridor is critical for Israeli security in postwar Gaza.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said the zone was “Hamas’s oxygen tube” and had been used by the Palestinian armed group for “smuggling munitions into Gazan territory on a regular basis.” He said that Hamas had also built tunnels near the Egyptian border, calculating that Israel would not dare strike so close to Egyptian territory.

In recent months, Israeli defense officials have told the public to expect a protracted campaign in Gaza, although one that would progress in phases toward lower-intensity fighting.

Still, Mr. Hanegbi’s assessment of at least another seven months of military operations appeared to be at odds with earlier projections by Mr. Netanyahu, who said in April that the country was “on the brink of victory” in its war against Hamas.

On Tuesday, the Israeli military said it was deploying an undisclosed number of additional troops in Rafah, where soldiers are engaged in close-quarters fighting with Hamas. Israeli officials have described the operations there as “limited and localized,” but satellite images of troop movements and reports from residents of increasing bombardments suggest a more significant operation.

Israel faces rising international pressure to wind down its campaign and reach a cease-fire deal with Hamas that would include the release of hostages held in Gaza. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has requested arrest warrants for Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s defense minister; the World Court has ordered the country to rein in its offensive in Rafah; and the Biden administration has expressed frustration with the lack of a clear Israeli plan for postwar Gaza.

Speaking on a visit to Moldova on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken urged Israel to come forward with a postwar vision for Gaza.

Without a plan, “Hamas will be left in charge, which is unacceptable,” Mr. Blinken said. “Or if not, we’ll have chaos, lawlessness and a vacuum.”

The outcry over the humanitarian crisis and death toll in Gaza has only sharpened in recent days, after an Israeli bombardment on Sunday — which sparked a conflagration in an area where displaced Palestinians were sheltering — killed at least 45 people in western Rafah, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The Israeli military said the airstrike had targeted two Hamas commanders and that it was looking into what could have caused the blaze.

Overall, 36,000 Palestinians have been killed since the Hamas-led surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, according to Gazan health officials. About 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Israel during the attack, according to the Israeli authorities, who also said the Palestinian militants took around 250 people back to Gaza as hostages.

The toll on civilians in and around Rafah has been enormous. More than a million Gazans have fled the city in the face of the onslaught, according to the United Nations.

Aid workers say the offensive has strained medical and humanitarian services to the breaking point, with only one hospital still functioning and several aid operations forced to decamp to other parts of the Gaza Strip.

The health care crisis in the city has been compounded by the closure of emergency clinics and other services amid continued clashes and strikes that have killed dozens of civilians.

Among the aid operations that have shuttered this week are a field hospital run by the Palestinian Red Crescent, a clinic supported by Doctors Without Borders and kitchens run by World Central Kitchen, which restarted operations in late April, only weeks after seven of its workers were killed in an Israeli strike that the military admitted was a “grave mistake.”

“As Israeli attacks intensify on Rafah, the unpredictable trickle of aid into Gaza has created a mirage of improved access, while the humanitarian response is in reality on the verge of collapse,” 19 aid groups said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

Israel has called the Rafah operation essential to take out Hamas forces arrayed in the city as well as to secure the border with Egypt.

An Israeli military official, who briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of anonymity to comply with military protocol, said that troops had identified at least 20 tunnels running from Gaza into Egypt, some of them only recently discovered.

But in briefing reporters later on Wednesday night, Admiral Hagari stopped short of claiming that the tunnels crossed the border.

“I can’t say now that all of these tunnels cross into Egypt,” he said. “We’ll inspect that, pass along the intelligence” to Egypt. The tunnel shafts in Gaza “are located in proximity to the border with Egypt, including in buildings and homes,” he added. “We’ll investigate and take care of each of those shafts.”

After the Israeli announcement, Egypt’s state-run Al-Qahera News channel quoted an unnamed senior official saying “there is no truth” to claims of tunnels under the border.

“These lies reflect the magnitude of the crisis facing the Israeli government,” the official said, adding, “Israel continues its attempts to export lies about on-the-ground conditions for its forces in Rafah in order to obscure its military failure and to find an escape for its political crisis.”

Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt tightly regulated how many troops either country could place in a series of zones — including the Philadelphi Corridor — in an attempt to create a buffer between the two sides.

Egypt has previously warned that an Israeli occupation of the border corridor would pose a “serious threat to Egyptian-Israeli relations.” On Monday, at least one Egyptian soldier was killed in a shooting incident with Israeli forces near the Rafah crossing; both sides have said they are investigating the matter.

Israeli troops are not present everywhere in the Philadelphi Corridor, the Israeli military official said, but they now can effectively cut off Hamas’s ability to move through tunnels under and near the border. During the operation, Israeli troops destroyed a tunnel network that ran for nearly a mile underground in eastern Rafah, Admiral Hagari said.

Egypt’s government has disputed that cross-border tunnels are a problem, saying that its own forces had eliminated them in recent years.

A limited number of Israeli forces have also deployed in the area of Tel al-Sultan, in western Rafah, the official said. That is the deepest advance into the city of Rafah confirmed by Israel since its ground offensive there began in early May.

Egypt and Israel have traded blame over who is responsible for the continued closure of the Rafah crossing, a key conduit for bringing aid into Gaza and allowing the sick and wounded to leave. Israeli troops captured the crossing overnight on May 7 and Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian officials have been unable to strike a deal to resume operations there.

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad, Emad Mekay and Johnatan Reiss contributed reporting.

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