Israeli tanks encircle Rafah cutting city in HALF after Netanyahu vows to ‘fight with fingernails’ if US blocks weapons

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ISRAELI tanks have advanced to the road that divides the Gaza Strip, effectively encircling the entire eastern half of refugee-filled Rafah.

The offensive comes despite international opposition, and as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his country is ready to "fight with our fingernails".

Israeli army soldiers atop one of their main battle tanks near the Gaza Strip border

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Israeli army soldiers atop one of their main battle tanks near the Gaza Strip borderCredit: AFP

Israeli army battle tanks are positioned in southern Israel, effectively encircling the entire eastern half of refugee-filled Rafah

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Israeli army battle tanks are positioned in southern Israel, effectively encircling the entire eastern half of refugee-filled RafahCredit: AFP

The main battle tanks have been joined by other military vehicles

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The main battle tanks have been joined by other military vehiclesCredit: AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country is ready to 'fight with our fingernails'

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country is ready to 'fight with our fingernails'Credit: AP

Some 1.5 million civilians who fled other war-torn parts of Gaza were estimated to have sought refuge in Rafah, living in makeshift shelters with limited access to food, water, and blankets.

As of Friday - and following orders by Israel's military - about 110,000 have fled the city, according to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

US President Joe Biden this week warned he would halt shipments of weapons to Israel if Netanyahu ordered a major invasion of Rafah.

But Netanyahu was apparently undeterred by the threat and vowed to have Israel enter the city, where he has said the "last bastion" of Hamas militants - including terror chief Yahya Sinwar - are hiding.

The prime minister said late on Thursday: "If we must stand alone, we shall stand alone.

"If we must, we shall fight with our fingernails.

"But we have much more than our fingernails, and with that strength of spirit, with God's help, together we shall be victorious."

Constant explosions and gunfire were on Friday heard to the east and northeast of Rafah as fighting escalated between Israeli armed forces and Hamas militants.

Hamas claimed to have ambushed Israeli tanks near a mosque in the east of Rafah, indicating Netanyahu's troops had already entered the city from the east and progressed several kilometres within it.

Israeli tanks have reportedly sealed off eastern Rafah from the south, capturing and blocking the only crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

Israel has already wiped out ‘several’ gunmen in Rafah as Hamas mayor says terror-nest town ‘on brink of catastrophe’

The armoured fighting vehicles have reached the Salahuddin road, which bisects the Strip, and completely encircled eastern Rafah - the "red zone" Israel earlier ordered residents to leave.

A British doctor volunteering at a hospital just north of Rafah, James Smith, told Reuters: "Over the course of the last three days or so the situation has really deteriorated incredibly dramatically in Rafah.

"The number of airstrikes has increased. The number of artillery strikes has increased, and we've heard that heavy military equipment, tanks and so on, have been on the streets of eastern Rafah and also been to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

"All humanitarian aid convoys have been unable to pass into Gaza from the south for the last couple of days. No fuel has entered and already the UN is planning for the worst case scenarios, rationing fuel for essential activities only."

Israel's military claimed it had already located several tunnel shafts in eastern Rafah and killed several Hamas fighters.

Speaking in an interview aired on US television after Biden vowed to halt weapons supplies to Israel, Netanyahu said he hoped he and the US president would be able to overcome their "disagreements".

He said: "We often had our agreements but we've had our disagreements. We've been able to overcome them.

"I hope we can overcome them now, but we will do what we have to do to protect our country."

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said his country would "stand strong" and "achieve our goals".

He said: "We will hit Hamas, we will hit (Lebanon's) Hezbollah, and we will achieve security."

Israel and Hamas have long been engaged in talks, mediated by Qatar and Egypt, that might see Israeli hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Negotiators left the last meetings for a potential truce in Cairo on Thursday without a breakthrough, and with an indication from Israel that it would proceed with its planned invasion of Rafah.

Some 110,000 people have fled Rafah ahead of Israel's assault, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said early on Friday.

UNICEF's senior emergency coordinator in the Strip, Hamish Young, said he had witnessed "many hundreds of trucks, buses, cars and donkey carts loaded with people and possessions" leave the city.

He told journalists: "People I speak with tell me they are exhausted, terrified and know life in al-Mawasi will, again, impossibly, be harder.

"It’s just a tragic situation, and there’s just nowhere safe in Gaza for children."

Israeli armored vehicles have also been deployed near Kibbutz Reim in southern Israel

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Israeli armored vehicles have also been deployed near Kibbutz Reim in southern IsraelCredit: Eyevine

Israel's offence comes amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the Hamas movement

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Israel's offence comes amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the Hamas movementCredit: AFP

Israeli army soldiers walk before a main battle tank positioned near the border with the Gaza Strip

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Israeli army soldiers walk before a main battle tank positioned near the border with the Gaza StripCredit: AFP
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