IDF says troops encircled Khan Younis, are pushing deeper into Hamas stronghold

Close-quarters battles held with terror operatives in south of Palestinian enclave as thousands of residents flee city

A picture taken from Rafah on January 23, 2024 shows smoke over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli  strikes (AFP)
A picture taken from Rafah on January 23, 2024 shows smoke over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli strikes (AFP)

As it suffered the most single-day fatalities of its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces said it completed the encirclement of southern Gaza’s Khan Younis overnight Monday, killing dozens of Hamas operatives in the process.

The encirclement marked a major advance, but it was unclear how much closer it would bring Israel to defeating Hamas or freeing the hostages held in Gaza — two central war aims that have proved increasingly elusive — as talks on a protracted ceasefire appeared to be gathering pace.

According to media reports, Hamas’s leaders in Gaza are believed to be hiding in tunnels in Khan Younis, likely surrounded by hostages.

The 98th Division led a major push into the western part of Khan Younis over the past day, with the 7th Armored Brigade and Givati Brigade encircling the city, the military said.

The division’s Commando Brigade has carried out operations deeper into Khan Younis, which the IDF says is a major Hamas stronghold.

Over the past day, the IDF said ground forces engaged in close-quarters battles with Hamas operatives and airstrikes were carried out, killing “many dozens of terrorists.”

The military said troops killed Hamas fighters wielding RPGs just dozens of meters from the soldiers, gunmen who had opened fire, and operatives booby-trapping buildings and roads with explosive devices.

Troops operating in the Khan Younis area also uncovered rockets prepared for launch, tunnels, and other weapons, the IDF added.

As Israeli forces operate deep within Khan Younis, the IDF announced that reservists of Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade recently wrapped up their offensive and defensive operations on the outskirts of the southern Gaza city.

Troops of the 630th Reserve Battalion operated with combat engineers to locate and destroy Hamas “attack tunnel” shafts and other underground infrastructure on the outskirts of northern Khan Younis, the IDF said.

Also as part of the Southern Brigade’s operations, reservists of the 261st Brigade worked to destroy Hamas infrastructure in the border area, the IDF said.

Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in Gaza after thousands of the group’s terrorists stormed across the border on October 7, massacring some 1,200 people and taking another 253 as hostages into the Strip.

Israel says it has killed thousands of terrorists and has largely defeated Hamas in northern Gaza in operations that caused widespread destruction to that part of the territory, including Gaza City. In recent weeks the offensive has focused on Khan Younis and refugee camps in central Gaza, including Maghazi, that date back to the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.

The Khan Younis area, unlike most parts of northern Gaza, has many civilians sheltering. The IDF said in a statement that it is aware of the sites where civilians are sheltering, along with hospitals, and was seeking to avoid harming them amid its operations. It accuses Hamas of using the civilian population as human shields by embedding itself in residential and civilian areas.

Palestinians who flee from Khan Younis from Israeli ground and air offensive on the Gaza Strip arrive in Rafah, southern Gaza, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Raed al-Nems, a spokesperson for the Palestine Red Crescent rescue service, said there was heavy fighting around the city’s Al-Amal Hospital. He said a shell had hit the fourth floor, killing one person and wounding 10 others. Medical teams were unable to enter or exit the hospital, and a territory-wide communication outage had further complicated rescue efforts, he said.

As fighting raged, many Palestinians once again were displaced, with thousands heading south to Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, where the majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are now believed to be sheltering in public buildings and tent camps.

Meanwhile, the IDF suffered its heaviest losses since the start of the ground operation with 24 soldiers killed over the previous day, 21 of them in one incident as two buildings collapsed when demolition charges planted by the military were triggered by an RPG fired at troops.

Family and friends of Israeli reservist Hadar Kapeluk mourn over his grave during his funeral at Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, January 23, 2024. (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

The Israeli casualties, announced on Tuesday, were celebrated as a victory by Palestinians.

“The resistance said it is going to make Gaza a graveyard for the occupation, and this is what is happening,” said Abu Khaled, sheltering in a school in Deir al-Balah, one of the few areas yet to be stormed by Israeli forces. “The more they stay, the more we will suffer for sure, but the more they will suffer too.”

Sami Abu Zuhri, head of the political office of Hamas in exile, said the Israeli losses were proof that the armed wing of Hamas was only getting stronger, and “the American and Israeli goal to get rid of Hamas or weaken it is not possible.”

“We call on the American administration to stop this pointless policy and stop betting on the possibility of weakening or finishing Hamas,” he said by phone to Reuters from an undisclosed location.

Israelis spoke of the losses as a necessary sacrifice in the war against Hamas.

“You know, it’s our sons, it’s our brothers, it’s terrible — but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do so that October 7 doesn’t happen again,” said Blina Rhodes on the street in Jerusalem. “You have to get rid of Hamas and make Gaza safe for us. Otherwise, we have no place to live.”

Palestinians fleeing from Khan Younis in Rafah, southern Gaza, January 22, 2024. (Fatima Shbair/AP)

The Hamas-run health ministry said Monday that 25,295 Gazans had been killed so far in the war, an unverified figure that includes Hamas operatives as well as those killed in failed Palestinian rocket launches. The IDF says it has killed more than 9,000 Hamas members. Since the start of the ground operation, 219 IDF soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

It is believed that 132 of the hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 — including at least 28 bodies — remain in Gaza after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, four were released earlier and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of 11 hostages, including three mistakenly killed by the military, have been recovered from the Strip by troops.

Relatives of hostages still held in Gaza have called for more effort to bring them home, even if that means reining in the war. Some burst into a parliamentary committee hearing on Monday.

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