DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel said Tuesday that its troops had entered Gaza’s second-largest city. The military said its forces were “in the heart” of Khan Younis, which has emerged as the first target in the expanded ground offensive into southern Gaza that Israel says aims to destroy Hamas.
Military officials said they were engaged in the “most intense day” of battles since the ground offensive began more than five weeks ago, with heavy firefights also taking place in northern Gaza.
The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza claims Israel's assault in retaliation for Hamas's Oct 7 attack has killed more than 15,890 people in Gaza, with more than 42,000 wounded. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.
Israel says it must remove Hamas from power to prevent a repeat of the attack that ignited the war, when Hamas and other militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took captive some 240 men, women and children.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday the military would have to retain open-ended security control over the Gaza Strip long after the war ends. His comments suggested a renewed direct Israeli occupation of Gaza.
Netanyahu said only the Israeli military can ensure Gaza remains demilitarized. “No international force can be responsible for this,” he said at a news conference. “I’m not ready to close my eyes and accept any other arrangement.”
Under U.S. pressure to prevent mass casualties, Israel says it is being more precise as it widens its offensive and is taking extra steps to urge civilians to evacuate out of its path. Weeks of bombardment and a ground offensive obliterated much of northern Gaza.
The military accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields when the militants operate in dense residential areas.
Military Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi acknowledged that Israeli forces use heavy force against civilian structures, saying militants keep weapons in houses and buildings so fighters in civilian clothes can use them to fire on troops.
“Striking them requires significant use of fire, both to target the enemy but also to, of course, protect our forces,” he said. “Therefore the forces operate powerfully.”
Halevi said his forces had begun the “third phase of the ground operations,” moving against Hamas in the south after seizing much of the north. Israel has not given specific details on troop movements.
Residents said troops advanced to Bani Suheila, on Khan Younis' eastern edge. Israeli forces also appear to be moving to partially cut across the strip between Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah. Satellite photos from Sunday showed around 150 Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles on the main road between the two cities.
In northern Gaza, the military said its troops were battling Hamas militants in the Jabaliya refugee camp and the district of Shujaiya, capturing Hamas positions and destroying rocket launchers and underground infrastructure.
The battles in the north signaled the toughest resistance from Hamas since Israeli forces moved in on Oct. 27. The military says 86 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza offensive and that thousands of Hamas fighters have been killed.
Even after weeks of bombardment, Hamas’ top leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar — whose location is unknown — was able to conduct complex cease-fire negotiations and orchestrate the release of more than 100 Israeli and foreign hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners last week. Palestinian militants have also kept up their rocket fire into Israel.
Family members of hostages still held in Gaza held tense talks with Netanyahu and the war cabinet Tuesday. Observers present said more than 100 people attended the nearly three-hour meeting. Some relatives shouted at cabinet members, perceiving they did not have any immediate plans to rescue some 138 hostages still captive. Nearly half the room left in disappointment before the meeting ended.
During the gathering, five hostages released during the truce shared harrowing details of their experience. One spoke of Hamas fighters “touching” female hostages, and another said militants shaved off a male hostage’s body hair to humiliate him, according to a group representing the hostages’ families. Others said they were deprived of water.
“It was not a relaxed discussion,” said Noam Peri, whose 80-year-old father is still hostage. “After 60 days, people are tired and worried.”