Israeli tanks have advanced further into eastern Rafah, reaching some residential districts of the southern border city in Gaza.

Witnesses reported seeing tanks crossing the strategically important Salah al-Din road into the Brazil and Jneina neighbourhoods. “They are in the streets inside the built-up area and there are clashes,” one person told Reuters.

A UN official said the most advanced Israeli positions were about 2km from his office.

Hamas’s armed wing said it had destroyed an Israeli troop carrier with a missile in the eastern al-Salam neighbourhood, killing some crew members and wounding others. The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the unconfirmed report.

In a roundup of its activities, the IDF said its forces had eliminated “several armed terrorist” cells in close-quarter fighting on the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. In the east of the city, it said it had also destroyed militant cells and a launch post from where missiles were being fired at IDF troops.

Thousands of people flee as fighting intensifies in Gaza’s Jabaliya and Rafah – video

Between 360,000 and 500,000 Palestinians have fled Rafah in the past week after Israeli warnings to evacuate eastern and central neighbourhoods before assaults that look set to open a bloody new phase of the war.

In the north of the territory, where Israeli troops launched a series of operations over the weekend, there were reports of the most intense battles for many weeks, forcing another 100,000 to flee.

Israel’s international allies and aid groups have repeatedly urged against a ground incursion into Rafah, warning of a potential humanitarian catastrophe. The US recently blocked a shipment of heavy bombs to Israel that might have been used in the operation.

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In recent days, roads heading north and west have been choked with cars, trucks, trolleys and pony carts laden with people and their possessions moving towards an “expanded humanitarian zone” on the coast.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has so far rejected US pressure to hold off on a full-scale attack on the city, despite Washington’s threats to further restrict arms deliveries.

Medics reported heavy air activity over Rafah, with the constant sound of drones overflying streets as thousands of displaced people and residents continued to dismantle shelters, stalls and other makeshift structures.

Palestinians pack their belongings as they prepare to flee Rafah on Tuesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Witnesses reported that roads were much emptier than previous days in Rafah on Tuesday, though those heading west to the “expanded humanitarian zone” designated by the IDF were still very congested.

The Palestinian enclave’s health ministry said 82 people had been killed and 234 injured in the past 24 hours, one of the highest daily tolls for many weeks.

Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, triggered by surprise attacks launched by Hamas on 7 October in which 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and about 250 hostages were taken, has killed at least 35,173 Palestinians and wounded 79,061, the ministry added.

The fighting has forced many big aid organisations to shut down or cut operations across Gaza, amid increasingly acute shortages of fuel, food and clean water. Health officials said they had received a consignment of emergency fuel and that healthcare was being prioritised over other services, meaning the few remaining hospitals in Rafah have a enough fuel to maintain reduced services for about six days.

Dr James Smith, a British medic working in Gaza, said the Rafah crossing point was “completely unrecognisable”, with significant destruction following its seizure by the IDF last week. .

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“There was nothing but dust and sand … The only thing I could discern was the archway that marks the entrance to the Rafah crossing, otherwise everything else destroyed beyond recognition,” Smith said in a voice note. The crossing was a key route for aid into Gaza and the only place individuals could enter or leave the territory.

British surgeon in Gaza speaks out as Israel offensive deepens in Rafah – video

The risks to aid workers in Gaza were again made clear when a UN vehicle on Monday came under fire in Rafah, resulting in the death of a member of the organisation’s department of safety and security and the injury of another as they were travelling to the European hospital.

A spokesperson for the UN said the secretary general, António Guterres, was “deeply saddened” and condemned all attacks on UN personnel and called for a full investigation.

Andrea De Domenico, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory, said he received a call at about 12.30pm from “a colleague saying there had been an explosion on the vehicle she was travelling in”.

“She said she was injured and the man who was with her had died,” De Domenico, who is now in Rafah, said.

De Domenico said the woman was found a short distance from the vehicle, which his colleagues have been unable to retrieve.

Meanwhile, Palestinian truckers said on Tuesday they feared for the security of aid convoys to Gaza, a day after Israeli settlers wrecked trucks carrying humanitarian supplies bound for the enclave and set the vehicles on fire. The attacks were condemned by the White House, with the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, describing the behaviour as ‘‘completely unacceptable.”

In a separate development on Tuesday, the international court of justicesaid it would hold hearings on Thursday and Friday to discuss emergency measures sought by South Africa over Israel’s attacks on Rafah.

The measures form part of a continuing case South Africa filed at the ICJ in December last year, accusing Israel of violating the genocide convention during its offensive against Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has previously said it is acting in accordance with international law and has called the genocide case baseless.

Additional reporting Shady Giorgio



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