Army pushes back on reported fears Sinwar fled to Sinai, as battles return to Gaza City

Soldier dies of wounds, bringing death toll to 236, as fighting persists in Khan Younis and Hamas leader Haniyeh arrives in Cairo for moribund hostage talks

Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released February 20, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)
Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released February 20, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli officials on Tuesday denied a report by a Saudi-owned news outlet that said security figures fear Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar had fled to Egypt via a spacious network of tunnels running under the border. Meanwhile, the IDF indicated it planned to renew battles in parts of Gaza City.

The report by the Arabic-language Elaph came as the Israel Defense Forces said it was continuing to focus fighting in the southern city of Khan Younis, while increasingly alarmed warnings were sounded against plans to expand the offensive south into Rafah, and as the tally of troops killed since the start of the ground invasion ticked upward to 236 with the death of a reservist injured in Kahn Younis last week.

The Elaph report claimed Tuesday that the Israeli security establishment has assessed that the leadership of Hamas, including Sinwar and his brother Muhammad, recently escaped to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula via tunnels from Rafah, and may have taken hostages along to use as human shields.

It was impossible to assess the veracity of the report, which relied on a single source. Previous reports from Elaph have proven to be false.

The IDF said it had no information that Sinwar has left Gaza.

Sinwar has not been seen in public since the October 7 attack led by Hamas in which some 1,200 people were killed in Israel, mostly civilians. Thousands of attackers who invaded southern Israel committed horrific acts of brutality including widespread sexual violence, while also taking 253 hostages back to Gaza.

Israel responded to the assault with an air, sea, and ground offensive to topple Hamas and free the hostages, over half of whom are still in captivity. While the military claims to have destroyed 75% of Hamas battalions, the terror group’s leaders, including Sinwar, remain at large.

Hamas’s Gaza Strip leader Yahya Sinwar in a tunnel in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, October 10, 2023 (IDF Spokesman)

The terror group’s Qatar-based political chief Ismail Haniyeh, meanwhile, arrived in Cairo Tuesday for negotiations aimed at reaching a pause in the fighting and freeing the estimated 134 hostages and remains held in Gaza.

Negotiations mediated by American, Qatari and Egyptian officials have apparently stalled, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing the terror group’s demands so far as “delusional” and reportedly ruling out sending an Israeli delegation back to Cairo after its initial visit there last week.

The talks come as the UN Security Council is set to consider an Algerian proposal calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, despite a promised US veto. Washington has said the resolution could upset the sensitive talks and has advanced a rival proposal which calls for a temporary pause and seeks to halt a planned Israeli advance on Rafah, where some 1 million displaced Gazans are sheltering.

This picture taken from Rafah shows smoke over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli strikes on February 20, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The IDF said Tuesday that troops had killed dozens of Hamas operatives over the past day, many of them in Khan Younis. Troops battled several gunmen, some armed with RPGs, from close range, killing them, and a weapons depot in the city was bombed from the air, the army said.

On Monday, the army said it had killed 12,000 Hamas operatives since fighting began October 7, double the number reported by Hamas.

According to the military, 236 Israeli troops have been killed in the fighting, including a soldier who succumbed to wounds sustained on February 15 during a battle with Hamas operatives in Khan Younis.

He was named as Staff Sgt. Maoz Morell, 22, of the Paratroopers Brigade’s reconnaissance unit, from Talmon.

Another soldier, Staff Sgt. Rotem Sahar Hadar, was killed in the same incident.

Staff Sgt. Maoz Morell (Israel Defense Forces)

The army was continuing to operate on Tuesday at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, where troops have detained more than 200 terror suspects so far, many of whom have ties to the Hamas-held hostages, according to the IDF. The World Health Organization, which said Tuesday it had evacuated 32 patients in recent days, claims the facility is no longer functioning, though the IDF said it was working to ensure that the hospital continued to operate, including fixing electricity problems there.

“Nasser Hospital has no electricity or running water, and medical waste and garbage are creating a breeding ground for disease,” the WHO said in a statement Tuesday.

Israel has provided evidence showing Hamas has used hospital facilities in Gaza for its own purposes, including drawing electricity from the sites or building underground bunkers beneath medical centers, which makes them legitimate military targets for Israel.

While the army has held off on invading the Rafah area in far southern Gaza, the last Hamas stronghold, it warned Tuesday that it could resume fighting in two Gaza City neighborhoods and called on residents to evacuate to the al-Mawasi “humanitarian zone” on the coast of southern Gaza.

Troops operate in Gaza, in a handout image cleared for publication by the IDF on February 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Palestinian media outlets reported casualties in Israeli strikes on Zeitoun on Tuesday, one of the two neighborhoods.

At the beginning of Israel’s ground offensive against Hamas, the IDF called on all Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate south, although some have remained there regardless.

According to Hamas health authorities, over 29,000 people in Gaza have been killed, though the figures cannot be verified and do not differentiate between fighters and civilians.

The war has caused a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, with most of the population displaced and at risk of starvation.

Volunteers distribute rations of red lentil soup to displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 18, 2024 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The United Nations welfare organization for children reported Tuesday that one in six children in northern Gaza is acutely malnourished.

The scarcity of food and water in Gaza has left children and women across the Strip suffering a steep rise in malnutrition, UNICEF warned.

It said the situation is poised to “compound the already unbearable level of child deaths.”

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