Israel Pushes Deeper Into Rafah, but Gaza Exit Plan Remains Unclear

The Israeli military said on Friday that its forces had advanced into central Rafah, pushing even more deeply into the southern Gaza city despite an international backlash and pressure from allies to scale back the latest offensive and agree to a cease-fire.

Israeli special forces were engaging in “intelligence-based targeted raids” in central Rafah, the Israeli military said in a statement. It added that troops were performing “focused and low-intensity operations” in the city. On Wednesday, the military announced that it had established “operational control” over the border zone with Egypt, an eight-mile-long strip known as the Philadelphi Corridor on the outskirts of Rafah.

Commercially available satellite imagery taken by Planet Labs on Thursday showed that the Israeli military had set up positions in parts of central Rafah, while military vehicles and tanks could be seen as far as the outskirts of the Tel al-Sultan area in western Rafah.

As the fighting raged in Gaza, President Biden said Friday in Washington that it was time to end the war and bring about a cease-fire. “At this point, Hamas is no longer capable of carrying out another Oct. 7,” Mr. Biden said from the White House. “It’s time for this war to end, for the day after to begin.”

In a statement released after Mr. Biden’s comments, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said “the war will not end until all of its goals are achieved, including the return of all our abductees and the elimination of Hamas’s military and governmental capabilities.”

Despite nearly eight months of fighting, Israel has yet to accomplish its stated goals of toppling Hamas and bringing home the roughly 125 remaining hostages abducted during the Oct. 7 attack. Israeli officials have said that shutting down Hamas’s cross-border smuggling network and rooting out militants in Rafah will be key steps toward those goals.

In the northern town of Jabaliya, another focal point of the Israeli campaign in Gaza, the military said it had conducted more than 200 airstrikes over weeks of intense fighting with Hamas militants. Israel said Friday that its troops had withdrawn from eastern Jabaliya after recovering the bodies of seven hostages, killing hundreds of fighters and destroying several miles of an underground tunnel network. The military said it was still conducting combat operations in central Gaza.

Military analysts have expressed skepticism that the offensive in Rafah would deal Hamas the decisive blow that Israel craves. But it has deepened the misery of Palestinians, who are still facing widespread hunger in the enclave. And since the offensive began, the amount of international aid reaching southern Gaza has declined precipitously, the United Nations says, although there has been a slight uptick lately in the arrival of commercial goods.

Tzachi Hanegbi, the Israeli national security adviser, said on Wednesday that Israel’s military operations in Gaza would likely continue through the end of the year. Mr. Hanegbi, a senior aide to Mr. Netanyahu, said in a radio interview that the fighting would continue for months more to “shore up the achievement” against Hamas.

The Israeli military has returned multiple times to some parts of Gaza after Hamas fighters resurfaced. One Israeli media outlet described the latest mission in Jabaliya as a “second re-clearing.”

Residents who returned on Friday to the once densely populated urban sprawl in and around Jabaliya had expected to find significant destruction. What they saw instead was a flattened landscape buried with rubble where even the shrubs had been obliterated.

“The destruction is indescribable,” said Mohammad Awais, who returned with his family to their home in Jabaliya on Friday. “Our minds aren’t able to comprehend what we’re seeing.”

He said he and his family walked along devastated roads for nearly an hour in the heat and saw that no vehicle could navigate streets blocked by piles of rubble from pulverized houses and shops. As they walked, rescue workers passed, carrying the wounded and the dead on stretchers. Some bodies were found in the streets, others had been dug out and pulled from the rubble, and were already beginning to decompose, said Mr. Awais, a social media marketer.

“Even the ambulances can’t drive through them to transport the injured and martyrs,” he said of the streets in Jabaliya.

Some buildings had already been destroyed before the latest Israeli offensive in the area, according to imagery from April. But by late May, far more structures in those areas appeared flattened and almost all vegetation had been obliterated.

Mr. Awais and his family are among the few residents who still have a place to return to, as their home was only partially damaged. On Friday, they began to clean out parts of collapsed walls, shards of wood and glass and ruined furniture so that they could move back in. But the family supermarket, which closed in December amid Israel’s invasion, was entirely destroyed, he said.

Satellite photos of eastern Rafah from May 22 show similar scenes of devastation since the offensive there began in early May. The area around the border crossing with Egypt, captured by Israeli troops in an overnight operation on May 7, appears as a bleak wasteland in the satellite images.

Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli brigadier general, said on Friday that the offensive in Rafah would likely continue for weeks as Israeli forces destroyed tunnels in controlled demolitions and fought through parts of the city against remaining militants.

To prevent Hamas from rearming itself, Israeli forces would remain in the border zone near Egypt for the foreseeable future, said General Brom, who directed the military’s strategic planning division. Israeli officials, he said, have yet to move toward the only other feasible option — handing over security responsibility to a new administration.

Senior Israeli officials have expressed frustration with Mr. Netanyahu for not articulating a clear exit strategy for the war, and a centrist member of Israel’s war cabinet, Benny Gantz, said recently that he would leave the government if it did not develop a plan for Gaza by June 8.

As long as Israel has no diplomatic endgame for Gaza, its forces will keep finding themselves bogged down in constant battles against Palestinian militants there, General Brom said.

“All kinds of operations will be launched, and they will all have military logic, but they won’t be part of any clear strategy,” General Brom said, adding that chipping away at Hamas under an Israeli military regime in Gaza “could take years.”

Lauren Leatherby, Christiaan Triebert and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.

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