In Rafah we saw the destruction and the limits of the Israeli strategy for Gaza

The armed jeep convoy filled with journalists roared into dusty Rafah, passing razed homes and destroyed apartment blocks.

As we dismounted our Humvees, a dead silence gripped this strip of southern Gaza, near the border with Egypt. Slabs of concrete and twisted rebar dotted the scarred landscape. Kittens darted through the debris.

The once bustling streets were now a maze of rubble. Everyone was gone.

More than a million people have fled an Israeli assault that began two months ago. Many have been repeatedly displaced and now live in tent cities that stretch for miles, where they face an uncertain future as they mourn the loss of loved ones.

As Israel says it is winding down its anti-Hamas operation in Rafah, the Israeli military has invited foreign journalists to the city for a supervised tour. The military says it has fought with precision and restraint against Hamas fighters infiltrating civilian areas.

But the death, destruction and mass displacement of civilians have left Israel increasingly diplomatically isolated.

More than 37,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. While that figure doesn’t distinguish between civilians and Hamas fighters, it does include dozens killed in May when Israel dropped a pair of 250-pound bombs on a tented camp in Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu estimated the number of Palestinian deaths at around 30,000, saying about half were civilians.

The Israeli invasion was intended to destroy Hamas and free its hostages. So far, it has achieved neither.

According to the army's calculations, at least 900 members of the Hamas brigade in Rafah and 15,000 Hamas fighters in total were killed.

But three months after Mr. Netanyahu declared that “total victory is within reach,” the army acknowledges that the siege of Rafah has eliminated only a third of the Hamas brigade. Hamas’s leadership remains intact. And about 120 hostages are believed to remain somewhere in Gaza, though about a third are thought to be dead.

Palestinians who fled the city have no idea when they will return or what they will find when they do. Marwan Shaath, 57, said he and his family left behind their three-story home. “It was supposed to be the family home for generations to come,” he said in an interview. His friends sent him photos of what was left. “It was hit hard. Half of it has already collapsed. No walls, no windows, and most of it has been burned.”

Fighting in Rafah has been intense, Israeli officials said, with Hamas setting hundreds of booby traps. Officials showed us a video they said showed a house equipped with 50-gallon drinking water tanks filled with remote-controlled explosives.

On Friday, the Israeli military claimed to have killed dozens of Hamas fighters in Rafah, and Colonel Yair Zuckerman, commander of the Nahal infantry brigade engaged in Rafah, taunted his Hamas counterpart 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, although Israeli officials did not review or censor our work. A Hamas representative did not respond to text messages seeking comment.

We saw the outskirts of a neighborhood that had been torn apart by fighting. It was clear where Israeli forces had broken into Rafah from the south, destroying corridors for their tanks and troops. The air was thick with sand and fine debris.

Artillery, fighter jets, and bulldozers had leveled buildings or blasted them to pieces. From where we stood, the scale was incalculable, though it had been measured by satellites. We saw dozens of trucks of humanitarian aid, but it was impossible to assess the relief effort, which the United Nations criticized as woefully inadequate.

Israel has accused Hamas of using Palestinians as human shields, placing rocket launchers near schools and building tunnels under crowded neighborhoods, including Rafah.

The military showed us photos of cameras placed around a neighborhood, which officials say allowed Hamas to monitor Israeli forces and plan attacks against them. Israeli soldiers say they found Hamas combat kits scattered around many homes, along with advanced weapons such as Russian-made surface-to-air missiles.

Israeli officials argue that such tactics justify fighting in sometimes crowded neighborhoods, where Hamas fighters hide and stash their weapons.

But Hamas's guerrilla tactics also reflect a power imbalance between a sophisticated army and a militia that relies on smuggled weapons.

Much of that smuggling, Israeli officials say, takes place not far from where we were, at the Rafah border crossing and in tunnels into Egypt. Stopping the flow of weapons was a major reason for Israel's operation in Rafah. Israeli officials have described these smuggling routes as Hamas's “oxygen.”

Despite a long-standing Israeli blockade and an Egyptian campaign to stop underground smuggling, the Israeli military spokesman told us that soldiers had found tunnels, he wouldn't say how many, along the border. It was unclear how many of those tunnels were active before the war began.

“A lot of terrorist infrastructure has been built near the border,” said Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the army’s chief spokesman.

A little more than a football field away from the border, the military led us to a manhole-like entrance to a tunnel between a couple of damaged houses. Destroying these tunnels can be devastating to the buildings above.

“We are normal people living above ground,” Mr. Shaath said. “I don’t know what’s going on underground, and whatever is happening is not my fault as a civilian.”

More than two dozen Israeli soldiers have been killed fighting in southern Gaza, including eight last month in a Rafah explosion that was one of the deadliest attacks on Israeli soldiers since the ground invasion of Gaza began. While we were there, Israeli sniper fire crackled every now and then.

Israeli officials have identified about 700 soldiers killed in the Oct. 7 terror attacks, when Hamas-led gunmen stormed into Israel, taking hostages and killing civilians, including women and children. Officials say about 1,200 people died that day.

One of them was Colonel Jonathan Steinberg, the previous commander of Nahal. A few hours after his death, Colonel Zuckerman replaced him. He told us that he and his troops planned to finish the job at Rafah.

We climbed into the jeeps and drove to another spot nearby, with a view of the rest of Rafah stretching out to the sea. Admiral Hagari climbed to the top of a small sandy hill.

He pointed to Tal al-Sultan, another neighborhood in Rafah. Out there, he said, hostages were being held. A small group of Americans might be among them.

To free them, he said, rescue operations or military pressure are needed.

“We will bring the hostages back,” he told us. “Every one of your countries will do the same after October 7.”

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