Hamas moves to reassert power in Gaza City areas from which Israeli forces withdrew

Palestinians say Gaza-ruling terror group has begun deploying police officers and set up makeshift offices to distribute salary payments, leading to fresh Israeli action

Amid the Israel-Hamas war, Palestinians walk between the remains of destroyed buildings on the main road of Gaza City on January 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Hajjar)
Amid the Israel-Hamas war, Palestinians walk between the remains of destroyed buildings on the main road of Gaza City on January 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Hajjar)

Hamas has begun to resurface in areas where Israel withdrew the bulk of its forces a month ago, deploying police officers and making partial salary payments to some of its civil servants in Gaza City in recent days, four residents and a senior official in the terror group said Saturday.

Signs of a Hamas resurgence in Gaza’s largest city underscore the terror group’s resilience despite Israel’s deadly air and ground campaign since October 7, when Hamas-led terrorists who stormed the border into southern Israel slaughtered some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and kidnapped 253. Israel has said it’s determined to crush Hamas and prevent it from returning to power in Gaza, an enclave it has ruled since 2007.

In recent days, Israeli forces renewed strikes in the western and northwestern parts of Gaza City, including in areas where some of the salary distributions were reported to have taken place.

Four Gaza City residents told The Associated Press that in recent days, uniformed and plainclothes police officers deployed near police headquarters and other government offices, including near Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest. The residents said they saw the return of civil servants and subsequent Israeli airstrikes near the makeshift offices.

The return of police marks an attempt to reinstate order in the devastated city after Israel withdrew a significant number of troops from northern Gaza last month, a Hamas official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The official said the group’s leaders had given directions to reestablish order in parts of the north where Israeli forces had withdrawn, including by helping prevent the looting of shops and houses abandoned by residents who had heeded repeated Israeli evacuation orders and headed to the southern half of Gaza.

During Israel’s ground offensive, many homes and buildings were left half-standing or reduced to piles of scrap, rubble and dust.

Illustrative: Palestinians receive their financial aid as part of an aid allocated by Qatar, at a post office in Gaza City on June 20, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Saeed Abdel-Bar, a resident of Gaza City, said a cousin received funds from a makeshift Hamas office near the hospital that was set up to distribute $200 payouts to government employees, including police officers and municipal workers.

Since seizing control of Gaza nearly 17 years ago, Hamas has been operating a government bureaucracy with tens of thousands of civil servants, including teachers, traffic cops and civil police, who operate separately from the terror group’s secretive military wing.

The partial salary payments of $200 for at least some government employees signal that Israel has not delivered a knockout blow to Hamas, even as the military says troops have killed some 10,000 operatives in Gaza along with some 1,000 terrorists in Israel on October 7.

Ahmed Abu Hadrous, a Gaza City resident, said Israeli warplanes struck the area where the makeshift office is located multiple times earlier this week, including Saturday morning.

The strikes come roughly a month after Israeli military leaders said they had broken up the command structure of Hamas battalions in the north, but that individual fighters were continuing to carry out guerrilla-style attacks.

Following an assessment in northern Gaza on Thursday, the chief of the IDF’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, told troops that the army will continue to battle Hamas in the area, despite having focused on other locations recently.

“Our ability to operate here, in the heart of Gaza City again, after we left to attack in other areas, our ability to return here and operate powerfully against the important targets, while striking many dozens of terrorists in recent days, is an important ability, and we will continue to do it,” Finkelman said.

Chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman (right) and Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, the commander of the 162nd Division, in northern Gaza, February 1, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

His comments came after Army Radio reported the IDF was planning to bolster troop activity in northern Gaza in the coming weeks amid indications that Hamas was attempting to reestablish its military presence there, pointing to rocket fire emanating from the area on Sunday and a recent gun battle near the coastline in which five Hamas members were killed.

The IDF was planning to carry out brigade-level raids on areas where Hamas is attempting to retake northern redoubts, which may include broad operations where needed, the report noted, a shift from recent weeks in which the army has been mainly concerned with hunting down weapons, tunnels and small pockets of remaining resistance.

Renewed fighting in the north would likely complicate plans to begin allowing Gazans to return to northern Gaza, which Israel advised all civilians to leave during the first stages of the war.

The report quoted a defense source blaming the lack of plans for a civilian body to manage affairs in northern Gaza as a major factor in Hamas being able to move in to refill the power vacuum. “If there were a party able to deliver the goods for the north, Hamas would become irrelevant,” the unnamed source said.

A Channel 13 news report last month said IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi had a similar assessment, warning Israel’s leaders that gains made over the months of fighting could be eroded due to the lack of a plan for postwar management.

The alleged comments by Halevi in recent weeks were reflective of consternation among military analysts and others regarding the lack of preparation for a so-called “day after” in Gaza, as Israel winds down the intensive phase of its military campaign against Hamas, which, though weakened, remains in power.

“We are facing the erosion of gains made thus far in the war because no strategy has been put together for the day after,” Channel 13 news cited Halevi as saying in private conversations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and others.

This picture taken from the Israeli border with the northern Gaza Strip shows Israeli soldiers watching Gaza City from a position on January 1, 2024 (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Attempts by the government to convene ministers for conversations on managing the Gaza Strip and keeping Hamas out of power as the military pulls back have been hampered by infighting within the security cabinet.

The IDF has assessed that fighting in Gaza will likely last throughout all of 2024, as Israel works to strip Hamas of its military and governing capabilities. It has also vowed to continue fighting until all remaining hostages are released from captivity.

Meanwhile, combat continued in southern Gaza on Saturday, with the Hamas-run health ministry saying 107 people were killed over the preceding 24-hour period, bringing the wartime total to 27,238. The unverified toll does not differentiate between terror operatives and non-combatants, and is also believed to include civilians killed by errant fire by Palestinian terror groups in the Strip.

International mediators continue to work to close wide gaps between Israel and Hamas over a proposed hostage release deal put forth this week, nearly four months since Hamas and other terrorists carried out their murderous onslaught in southern Israel. According to reports on the proposed agreement, the return of the Israeli hostages would be accompanied by extended pauses in the fighting and Israel’s release of Palestinian security prisoners.

Hamas officials said Friday they were studying the proposal, but appeared to rule out some of its key components.

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