Fighting rages in Gaza's Rafah after first aid delivery via pier

This image grab from a handout video released by the Israeli army shows humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip via a temporary, floating pier constructed by the United States (-)
This image grab from a handout video released by the Israeli army shows humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip via a temporary, floating pier constructed by the United States (-)

Heavy clashes and bombardment Saturday rocked Gaza's southern city of Rafah as the Israeli military announced the first humanitarian aid had entered the besieged territory via a US-built pier.

The military said its air forces "struck over 70 targets" across the Gaza Strip over the past 24 hours while ground troops "continue precise operations" in eastern Rafah.

More than 10 days into what the Israeli military called a "limited" operation in Rafah that sparked an exodus of Palestinians sheltering there, fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants has also flared again in Gaza's north.

The Kuwaiti hospital said an overnight Israeli strike killed two people in a displacement camp in Rafah, with witnesses reporting heavy gunfire and shelling in the city's southeast and jets bombarding its eastern areas.

The army said its forces "conducted targeted raids" in Rafah and found weapons and explosives.

AFP correspondents, witnesses and medics said there were intense battles overnight in the northern Jabalia refugee camp, after the Israeli army reported on Friday "perhaps the fiercest" violence in the town in more than seven months of war.

Israeli forces "eliminated terrorists in a number of battles" in the Jabalia area and parts of central Gaza, the army said.

Israel in early January said it had dismantled Hamas's command structure in northern Gaza, but the army said the Palestinian group -- whose October 7 attack sparked the ongoing war -- "was in complete control here in Jabalia until we arrived a few days ago".

The Israeli incursion into Rafah, launched despite overwhelming international opposition and as mediators were hoping for a breakthrough in stalled truce talks, has worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis, aid groups say.

With key land crossings closed or operating at limited capacity due to the fighting, some relief supplies began flowing into war-ravaged Gaza via a temporary, floating pier constructed by the United States.

The Israeli army said 310 pallets began moving ashore in "the first entry of humanitarian aid through the floating pier".

- Rafah operation hampers aid -

In the coming days, around 500 tonnes of aid are expected to be delivered to Gaza through the pier, according to US Central Command.

But UN agencies and humanitarian aid groups have warned sea or air deliveries cannot replace far more efficient truck convoys into Gaza, where the United Nations has repeatedly warned of looming famine.

The European Union welcomed the first shipment from Cyprus to the Gaza pier, but called on Israel to "expand deliveries by land and to immediately open additional crossings".

The Rafah crossing, a vital conduit for humanitarian assistance, has been closed since the Israeli Rafah operation began early last week.

The war erupted after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 35,386 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to data provided by the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The toll includes at least 83 deaths over the past 24 hours, said a ministry statement on Saturday.

Out of 252 people taken hostage from Israel during the October 7 attack, 125 remain held in Gaza including 37 the army says are dead.

The army said troops in Gaza had recovered late Thursday the bodies of three hostages who had been "murdered" on October 7.

Amid the aid shortages, the Israeli army said "dozens of Israeli civilians" set fire to a Gaza-bound aid truck in the occupied West Bank on Thursday night, in the second such attack in a week.

Israel has vowed to defeat remaining Hamas forces in Rafah, which it says is the last bastion of the Iran-backed group.

The looming Israeli assault has prompted nearly 640,000 of the 1.4 million people who had been sheltering in Rafah to flee to other areas, the UN humanitarian office said.

- Islamic Jihad targeted -

Palestinian sources in Rafah told AFP that Israeli forces were operating in the city's Al-Salam and Jenina neighbourhood as well as on the Philadelphi route along the Egyptian border.

"Troops are advancing and retreating around these areas," a security source said.

Cairo, which has been involved in mediation efforts during the war, says a potential Israeli takeover of Philadelphi could violate its landmark 1979 peace deal with Egypt.

In northern Gaza's Beit Lahia, witnesses reported air strikes near Kamal Adwan hospital on Saturday.

The hospital's director Hussam Abu Safiya told AFP on Friday that the facility, which has received "large numbers of injured and killed" from fighting in nearby Jabalia, was running low on medical supplies and fuel to power generators.

The fuel aid that had reached the hospital was "barely enough for a few days", Abu Safiya said.

The World Health Organization has received no medical supplies in Gaza since the Rafah operation began on May 6, spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said Friday.

On the diplomatic front, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was headed to the region for weekend talks.

Sullivan will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Meanwhile Israel said it killed two senior Islamic Jihad militants in separate air strikes in the northern West Bank and in Rafah.

The armed wing of Islamic Jihad confirmed that a local commander was killed in an overnight strike on the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp.

However there was no immediate comment from the group, which has fought alongside Hamas, on the army's announcement that a "significant" operative was killed in Rafah.

A military statement did not name the slain militant and said he had been involved in "preparing... for operations against IDF (army) ground troops in the area".

burs-lb/ami/jsa