Israel tells Gazans in Khan Younis to evacuate as it considers pushing war south

People search through buildings, destroyed during Israeli raids in southern Gaza
People search through buildings, destroyed during Israeli raids in southern Gaza - AHMAD HASABALLAH/GETTY

Israel reportedly carried out a deadly airstrike in the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis on Saturday, as its forces prepared for a possible final showdown there with Hamas’s leadership.

The airstrikes hit the city hours after Israeli military aircraft dropped leaflets in several neighbourhoods around the city, warning residents to evacuate.

It appeared to be an opening salvo in what Israel has billed as a “new phase” of combat in the territory’s southern half, following four weeks of operations in the north.

Foremost in commanders’ sights is Khan Younis – which, as the home of Yahya Sinwar, the firebrand local leader for Hamas, is where the group may make its last stand.

Israeli military analysts told The Telegraph that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been training on virtual reality equipment that allowed them to simulate operations in Khan Younis’s narrow streets.

They believe that Hamas may be hiding some of its 240 hostages there and could threaten to execute them if cornered.

A car destroyed by airstrikes in Khan Younis on Friday
A car destroyed by airstrikes in Khan Younis on Friday - XINHUA/SHUTTERSTOCK

“It will be the epitome of urban guerrilla warfare – Khan Younis is much older and more densely populated than Gaza City, with lots of back streets and alleyways that Hamas fighters know well,” said Ralphy Jerusalemi, a former IDF officer.

“It will require tough and difficult fighting, to corner Hamas and bring them to a point where they will exchange their own lives for those of the hostages.”

The prospect of a showdown in Khan Younis comes after more than a month of fierce clashes around Gaza City and the north, much of which now lies in ruins.

In that time, more than a million people from northern Gaza have fled south, heeding evacuation orders from Israeli commanders, who said it would minimise civilian casualties.

On Saturday, the UN backed claims by the Hamas-run Gazan Health ministry that “scores of people” had been killed in airstrikes on two UN-run schools in the northern cities of Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya.

Now, though, the very areas that appeared to be safe havens are now also at risk. Khan Younis is a giant shelter for the displaced, with twice its normal 200,000 population crammed into makeshift shelters and camps. Aid agencies describe the situation as “dire”.

Leaflets being dropped by the Israeli army over Gaza City telling people to evacuate the area on Thursday
Leaflets being dropped by the Israeli army over Gaza City telling people to evacuate the area on Thursday - JACK GUEZ/AFP

This weekend, leaflets were airdropped over the city, warning that stepped-up operations against Hamas were about to start.

“Every house used by terrorist organisations will be targeted,” the leaflets said. They advised residents to evacuate now, or “expose their lives to danger”.

Mark Regev, an aide to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, acknowledged the difficulties that many would face. “I know it’s not easy for many of them, but we don’t want to see civilians caught up in the crossfire.”

Hours after he spoke, an airstrike on Khan Younis gave notice of Israel’s intentions,  pulverising two apartments in a multi-storey residential block and killing at least 32 people, local officials said.

“Where should we go now?” asked Khan Younis resident Huda Al Agha, 47. “There is no room in the south after  people moved from Gaza and the northern Gaza strip.”

Leaflets were dropped over several neighbourhoods within Khan Younis and four towns on its eastern flank, suggesting further airstrikes are imminent.

The real battle, though, will only only start once Israeli ground forces arrive. While Khan Younis’s population is only a third of the size of Gaza City’s, it may prove every bit as challenging to capture, if not more, should Israel choose to do so.

Although it has fewer of the tunnel networks that Hamas has dug in Gaza City, the former Silk Road settlement has a warren-like old town that may act as a citadel.

Its slums and refugee camps were also where Mr Sinwar, Hamas’s uncompromising leader, and Mohammed Deif, Hamas’s military chief, were raised. Both have strong local followings, and both rose to power partly because they have remained in Gaza, unlike other Hamas leaders, who live in comfortable exile in Qatar.

As such, Khan Younis is where many expect the group to make its final showdown. Israeli commanders already claim to have killed at least 2,000 of Hamas’s 30,000 militiamen in fighting around Gaza City. But Abu Ubaida, Hamas’s armed wing spokesman, vowed in a video statement last week to fight on.

“We have prepared ourselves for a long and sustained defence from all directions,” he said.
Khan Younis is less familiar to Israeli troops than Gaza City, where they have made numerous previous incursions over the years.

Palestinians search for casualties at the site of an Israeli strike on Saturday
Palestinians search for casualties at the site of an Israeli strike on Saturday - IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

Mr Jerusalemi said troops had trained with help from tech experts in the IDF’s Unit 9900, which creates virtual reality images of the urban landscape they will be fighting in. “That way, they know roughly what to expect,” he said.

He added that while some less committed Hamas fighters might desert, “there will be a good few thousand willing to sacrifice their lives”.

The worry is that Hamas may be willing to sacrifice the lives of the hostages too.

One nightmare scenario is that as Israeli forces close in, Hamas begins killing hostages one-by-one – possibly releasing video of the executions online, as Islamic State did in Syria.

“The risk of them killing hostages is a chance we take, but it is a chance they take too, as the hostages are the Hamas leadership’s life insurance policy,” said Mr Jerusalemi. “If they kill them, Israel will have nothing left to lose by bombing Hamas’s leadership.”

Hardliners in Mr Netanyahu’s government want to simply tough it out. Last month, right-wing settler leader Bezalel Smotrich, the country’s finance minister, demanded that the army “hit Hamas brutally and not take the matter of the captives into significant consideration”.

Mr Netanyahu, though, also has to listen to wider public opinion, much of which is sympathetic to the hostages’ families. On Saturday relatives and friends of some of those abducted led a large demonstration in Jerusalem, urging him to prioritise the captives’ welfare over military objectives.

He also faces pressure from the US and Britain, who have citizens among the captives, and who are already uneasy about the death toll of Palestinian civilians from the Gaza operation.  Hamas officials say at least 12,000 have died.

Even if the hostages are freed, and Hamas defeated, Western governments fret that Mr Netanyahu has not given much thought yet to “day after” plans for Gaza.

Scarred by its experiences in Iraq, where law and order broke down after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Washington has been pressing Mr Netanyahu on who will administer Gaza once Hamas is ousted. White House officials say they are yet to get a proper answer.

While Mr Netanyahu has said Israel does not want to govern Gaza-long term, he wants “overall security responsibility” for the territory for the time being.

His primary goal, though, seems to be stopping Hamas from carrying out terror attacks, rather than providing policing and governance structures, which would involve a large boots-on-the-ground commitment.

Soldiers and officers from the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate's Unit 9900
Soldiers and officers from the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate's Unit 9900

Diplomats fear that without any functioning, day-to-day government, Gaza will lapse into even further chaos and radicalism.

“The massive challenge for Israel is that while it has said it doesn’t want to run Gaza, it still wants to assert its authority,” said Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“That will require an occupation force, which would make them vulnerable to attack from a population that is generally very hostile.”

The US and the UN believe a “re-invigorated” version of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers parts of Israel’s West Bank, is the best option for civilian governance of a post-Hamas Gaza, possibly backed by a multi-national Arab security force. However, even that proposal faces formidable obstacles.

Mr Netanyahu does not think the PA is up to the task, while the PA says it will only get involved if he cedes ground on Palestinian statehood issues, which is unlikely.

The PA itself is also widely seen as corrupt and ineffective, and was one of the reasons why Gazans elected Hamas in the first place.

Despite the urgency of the situation, US diplomats say discussions with Israel and Arab nations about Gaza’s post-war administration have so far produced no viable proposals whatsoever.

Mr Lovatt said that currently Gaza’s neighbourhoods were just about able to take care of themselves, with assistance from aid agencies.

Medium-term, he said, Israel might have to retain civil servants from Hamas’s civilian administration, just as the US brought back functionaries from the lower ranks of Saddam Hussein’s deposed Ba’ath Party.

“The Israelis may not want them, but they are the people who could help stabilise the place, and most are not card-carrying members of Hamas,” he said. “Besides, if you make them unemployed, that just creates more problems.”

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