Many Hamas fighters in Rafah fleeing northward -- official

Sinwar not hiding in Rafah, officials tell ToI, as PM publicly prioritizes IDF op there

Officials say recent intel placed the Hamas leader in underground tunnels around Khan Younis, as the accused October 7 mastermind continues to elude Israeli forces in Gaza

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is not hiding in Rafah, two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Friday, as the Israel Defense Forces moves to expand its operations in Gaza’s southernmost city.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has elevated a potential IDF operation in Rafah to the top of his public agenda, with the targeting of Hamas’s leadership believed to still be a major Israeli war aim as well.

The IDF has had some success on this front, killing Hamas military wing deputy commander Marwan Issa — considered the terror group’s No. 3 leader in Gaza — along with other senior commanders in recent months. But Sinwar and his deputy — military wing chief Mohammed Deif — have remained elusive, despite repeated claims by Israeli officials that the IDF was closing in on them.

The two officials speaking to The Times of Israel were unable to say with certainty where Sinwar is currently located, but they cited recent intelligence assessments that placed the Hamas leader in underground tunnels in the Khan Younis area, some five miles north of Rafah.

A third official — an Israeli one — asserted that Sinwar is still in Gaza.

Israel has made eliminating Sinwar a key element of its goal to destroy Hamas. In February, the IDF released footage of what it said was Sinwar walking through a tunnel with several family members, the first time he was apparently spotted since going into hiding before the devastating October 7 onslaught he’s accused of orchestrating, triggering the ongoing war in Gaza.

IDF troops operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout image released May 8, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF ground forces began operating in Rafah on Monday, launching a targeted operation in the eastern part of the city aimed at taking over the Gaza side of the border crossing with Egypt. The security cabinet voted Thursday to approve a measured expansion of the Rafah operation in what is aimed at remaining within the scope of what Washington is willing to accept.

US President Joe Biden said he would stop sending certain offensive weapons to the IDF if Israel went forward with a major ground offensive in the population centers of the city where over one million Palestinians are sheltering. He already withheld a shipment of high payload bombs last week amid fears they’d be used in Rafah.

Netanyahu has pledged to launch a major offensive in Rafah for months, arguing that the operation is essential for defeating Hamas, which has four of its remaining six active battalions located in the city.

But one of the officials speaking to The Times of Israel said many Hamas fighters in Rafah have fled northward as Israeli threats of an invasion intensified in recent weeks.

While Israel says 18 of Hamas’s 24 battalions have been dismantled, the terror group’s fighters have managed to regroup and return to areas previously cleared by the IDF.

The IDF was operating in the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun this week for the third time since the war’s outbreak, with security officials warning that the IDF would be forced to continue playing this game of cat and mouse with Hamas until the Israeli government advances a viable alternative to Hamas rule.

IDF soldiers under the Nahal Brigade operate in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood, in a handout picture released on May 10, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

While much of the security establishment would like to see the Palestinian Authority — or at least Palestinians linked to the PA — fill the vacuums that the IDF is briefly creating through its operations throughout the Strip, Netanyahu has rejected the idea outright, as his far-right allies have pushed for Israel to permanently occupy the Strip and re-establish settlements there.

Absent a diplomatic strategy to compliment the military operations, many of the IDF’s achievements on the ground have been short-lived, the Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

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