IDF troops fight in central Khan Younis as Netanyahu says Israel closing in on Sinwar

Thousands of Palestinians flee city in southern Gaza as fighting intensifies, head for Rafah; military spokesman says Hamas gunmen are ‘coming out from underground and fighting us’

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

IDF troops operate inside Gaza, in this handout photo released on December 6, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF troops operate inside Gaza, in this handout photo released on December 6, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said Wednesday evening that its troops had surrounded the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip and were operating in its center, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a message to Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar that Israel was closing in on him, and rocket barrages from the Strip were fired at the southern city of Beersheba.

The military’s 98th Division “launched a combined attack on the area of ​​the city of Khan Younis, against the ‘centers of gravity’ of the Hamas terror organization,” the IDF said. Within a few hours, troops broke through the defenses of Hamas’s Khan Younis brigade, encircled the city, and began to maneuver deeper inside it, the army said.

It said troops captured Hamas strongholds, locating weapons and intelligence materials. Soldiers killed “many” Hamas operatives in ground combat and airstrikes, and located around 30 tunnel shafts that were then destroyed during the ongoing battles, as well as a weapons depot inside a mosque.

“The entire leadership of the Hamas terror organization — political and military — grew up in the area of ​​the city of Khan Younis, including Yahya Sinwar, Muhammad Sinwar, and Mohammed Deif. Now the city is surrounded by the 98th Division,” the IDF said.

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Wednesday evening that troops were also making advances in the northern Gaza Strip, where they have been operating for more than a month: “In the last 48 hours, in Jabaliya, Shejaiya, and Khan Younis, we breached the defense lines. The terrorists are coming out from underground and fighting our forces. And our forces are winning in close-quarters combat. They have the upper hand.”

Netanyahu issued a video statement Wednesday evening saying that IDF forces were “currently surrounding Sinwar’s house,” adding: “His home isn’t his castle, and he can flee, but it’s just a matter of time until we get to him,” Netanyahu said.

Hagari later clarified that “Sinwar’s home is the Khan Younis area” — indicating that no specific building serving as a residence for Sinwar was being encircled.

Sinwar is believed to have been in hiding in Hamas’s vast tunnel network since the terror group launched its deadly attacks on southern Israel on October 7.

Yahya Sinwar, head of the Hamas terror group in Gaza, attends a rally marking or Al-Quds Day, at a soccer field in Gaza City, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

“Sinwar is not above ground, but underground,” Hagari said. “I won’t elaborate on where exactly and what we know. Our job is to get to Sinwar and kill him.”

Sinwar is believed to be the mastermind of Hamas’s October 7 assault. He has not been seen publicly during the war, and Israeli leaders have vowed to take him out.

As IDF troops advanced on Khan Younis, the humanitarian situation worsened in south Gaza, with thousands fleeing further southward to Rafah and others desperately searching for basic supplies, with some accusing Hamas of stealing aid from civilians. Thousands fled Khan Younis as Israeli troops approached the city.

More than 75 percent of Gazans are thought to be displaced from their homes in the ongoing war, which was triggered when Hamas terrorists stormed across the border, killing around 1,200 Israelis and taking another 240 hostage, some 140 of whom are believed to still be held in the Strip. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said Tuesday that 16,248 people had been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, a figure that largely tracks with an assessment by Israel, which said it believes more than 5,000 of those killed are Hamas operatives.

Before it launched its ground operation in north Gaza in late October, the IDF urged those living in the northern part of the Strip to head south as its troops advanced. Now, after the expiration of a temporary truce deal, troops have pushed further into the south, where Jerusalem believes Hamas leaders are hiding, leaving civilians feeling they have few places left to flee.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that he expects “public order to completely break down soon, due to the desperate conditions” in Gaza. The humanitarian conditions during the war are “fast deteriorating into a catastrophe, with potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole,” he wrote in a letter to the president of the Security Council.

Israeli leadership on Wednesday was weighing an American appeal to allow more fuel into Gaza to help alleviate the dire humanitarian situation.

Palestinians flee the Israeli ground operation in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, December 6, 2023. (AP Photo/ Mohammed Dahman)

Meanwhile, Hamas fired a barrage of at least 10 rockets from Gaza toward Beersheba and the surrounding areas on Wednesday afternoon. One of the projectiles slammed into a parking lot in the city’s industrial zone, causing damage to nearby vehicles. The Fire and Rescue Services said a truck containing hydrogen peroxide was damaged. No injuries were reported.

Rockets were also fired earlier at Ashkelon and several towns along the Gaza border, setting off air raid sirens. A man in his 60s was lightly wounded by shrapnel from one of the rockets, according to first responders.

The IDF announced on Wednesday the deaths of three reservists as part of the Gaza ground offensive, bringing the death toll of the military’s ground operation to 84.

Sgt. First Class (res.) Yehonatan Malka, 23, from Beersheba, a member of the 7th Armored Brigade’s 82nd Battalion, and Sgt. Maj. (res.) Adi Shani, 39, of the 6036th logistics unit’s patrol company, from Tzur Yitzhak, were killed fighting in Gaza, while Lt. Col. (res.) Yochai Gur Hershberg, 52, from Havat Philip, a commander of a unit in the 98th Division tasked with locating missing persons, was killed in a military-related car crash in southern Israel.

This composite photo shows Lt. Col. (res.) Yochai Gur Hershberg (R), Sgt. First Class (res.) Yehonatan Malka (C) and Sgt. Maj. (res.) Adi Shani, who the Israel Defense Forces announced were killed on December 6, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The head of IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, held an assessment in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, telling troops that “the fight in Khan Younis is a major effort… we are pushing forward constantly toward the goals set for us.”

As the military advanced southward, IDF troops continued to battle Hamas gunmen in the north, killing several of them in Jabaliya over the last day. The military said the gunmen were killed in close-quarters combat, tank shelling, and drone strikes.

The IDF said the troops found Hamas weaponry, including sniper rifles, explosives, anti-tank missiles, rockets and tunnels during operations in a mosque and school in Jabaliya. A number of rocket launchers were found near the school.

Speaking to new conscripts of the Nahal and Kfir infantry brigades on Wednesday, IDF chief Herzi Halevi said they were enlisting at a time when the mission of protecting the State of Israel had taken on a new, deeper meaning.

“Both brigades are now, as we speak, fighting in Gaza — complex combat in urban built areas,” Halevi told them. “Soldiers there are making decisions, fighting the enemy… protecting each other, trying to locate hostages, rescue hostages… these are truly missions of the highest moral level imaginable.”

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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