Israeli military takes foreign journalists into Rafah to make a case for success in its war with Hamas

Rafah, southern Gaza Strip — A CBS News team was among the first group of foreign journalists allowed to visit the decimated southern Gaza city of Rafah since Israel launched its military ground assault there against Hamas in early May. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the operation despite warnings from the U.S. and other Israeli allies, which voiced serious concern about the risks to civilians who’d taken refuge in the city over the preceding seven months of war.

By the end of May, at least two weeks into Israel’s ground operations in the city, the United Nations said about 1 million Palestinians had fled from Rafah — many of whom had already been displaced at least once previously.

CBS News journalists in Gaza, led by producer Marwan al-Ghoul, have reported on the war since it started — bringing the world images and stories of the devastating effects on civilians. But the visit on Wednesday was the first look for foreign television news crews at the operation in Rafah, and its consequences. 

CBS News was driven into southern Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces in a convoy of open-top IDF Humvees.  

IDF says underground “terror ecosystem” uncovered

The IDF wanted to show the foreign media what it had accomplished in Rafah, including the discovery of what it called a “terror ecosystem” — an underground labyrinth of tunnels it said had been constructed by the militants under the city. Military officials said some of the tunnels had connected Hamas militants’ territory in Gaza with Egypt, across the Palestinian enclave’s southern border.

Smuggling via that route has long been pointed to by Israel as a vital survival line for Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel and the European Union for years.

The IDF said it had found hundreds of houses in the city boobytrapped by the militants, and that during its operations, it had killed more than 900 militants in Rafah.

The city was said to be the last major stronghold of Hamas, which ruled over Gaza for almost 20 years before it sparked the ongoing war by launching its unprecedented Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel. That attack saw the militants kill some 1,200 people and take about 240 more hostage, roughly 80 of whom are still believed to be alive, held hostage in Gaza.

Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry says Israel’s retaliatory war has killed almost 38,000 people, most of them women and children. It has also destroyed most of the infrastructure in the Palestinian territory, which, before the war, was believed to be home to about 2.3 million people.

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An Israeli Defense Forces soldier stands in front of military vehicles in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, during ongoing IDF operations against Hamas in the city, July 3, 2024.

CBS News


From what CBS News witnessed in Rafah, virtually nobody remains in the city, which, only a month and a half ago, was packed with internally displaced Palestinians.

Destruction on an indescribable scale

It is impossible to put into words the scale of the destruction in Rafah. The pictures captured by CBS News’ camera speak for themselves. It has been made a wasteland.

Apart from a line of empty aid trucks and their drivers, the only people seen in Rafah were IDF forces. A few stray cats and an emaciated dog roamed around the rubble looking sorry for themselves.

CBS News heard significant small arms fire during the visit, most of it seemingly from IDF troops still operating in the city.

The annihilation of infrastructure in Rafah was worse even than what CBS News witnessed in 2017 in the decimated Syrian cities of Mosul and Raqqa during the war against ISIS.

Israel’s Netanyahu doubles down on “destruction of Hamas”

Chief IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari spoke with the journalists in the ruins of Rafah as gunfire rang out. He said the military’s work in the city was far from over.

Israel launched its operations in Gaza just hours after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. In the days immediately after, Netanyahu spoke unequivocally about his aims, vowing in televised remarks to destroy Hamas and warning that every member of the group was “a dead man.”

But after nearly nine months of fighting and the destruction of huge swathes of Gaza, many Hamas leaders remain at large, including its top commander in the enclave, Yahya Sinwar.

Many people, including some Israelis, believe destroying Hamas, or even its capability to govern and launch its own military operations, could take years to achieve, or may in fact be impossible.

Hagari himself said on Israeli TV just a couple weeks ago that, “whoever thinks we can eliminate Hamas is wrong,” adding that anyone leading the Israeli people to believe that was an achievable mission was, “simply throwing sand in the eyes of the public.”


Netanyahu increasingly at odds with own military and U.S.

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Amid the signs of a disconnect between Netanyahu and the Israeli military on the objectives of the war and planning for what comes after it in Gaza, The New York Times, cited anonymous Israeli commanders on Tuesday as saying they want a truce.

The newspaper quoted Israeli generals as saying they’re running low on ammunition and concerned they could be stretched too thin if the war escalates into a tandem conflict with Hamas’ ally Hezbollah, based across Israel’s northern border in Lebanon. The Times said the generals believe a cease-fire is the best way to get the remaining Israeli hostages home — and that a truce should be sought regardless of the government’s stated objectives being met.

Netanyahu shot back at the claims on Tuesday, saying he didn’t “know who these anonymous sources are, but I am here to make it unequivocally clear: This will not happen. The war will end once Israel has achieved all of its objectives, including the destruction of Hamas and the release of all of our hostages.”

There have been many reports of Hamas fighters fleeing the ruins of Rafah along with the exodus of Palestinian civilians in recent weeks. What has been destroyed in Rafah, like every other major population center that existed in Gaza before Oct. 7, is the city itself.  

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