Palestinian gunmen kept up attacks against Israeli forces on Sunday in the Gaza Strip’s two main cities, weeks after they were overrun by troops and tanks, in a sign Hamas still maintains some control ahead of any potential truce.
Nearly four months into the war triggered by the militant Palestinian group’s assault on Israel, there was persistent fighting in Gaza City in the north of the densely populated enclave, and in Khan Younis in the south.
Israel said last week its main focus was now Rafah, on the southern border with Egypt.
The advance on Rafah is a worry for Cairo, which has said it would not admit any influx of Palestinian refugees in what it describes as a bid to prevent any permanent dispossession. An Israeli official said, however, that the military would co-ordinate with Egypt, and seek ways of evacuating most of the displaced people northward, ahead of any Rafah ground sweep.
Palestinians reported Israeli tank shelling and air strikes there, including one that killed two girls in a house. As mourners bade farewell to the dead children, a relative, Mohammed Kaloub, said the air strike hit a room full of women and children in Rafah’s al-Salam neighbourhood.
“There is no safe place in Gaza, from the borders north to south.”
After conducting partial pullouts from Gaza City in the past few weeks that enabled some residents to return and pick through the rubble, Israeli forces have been mounting incursions.
Before dawn on Sunday, air strikes destroyed several multi-storey buildings, including an Egyptian-funded housing project, residents said.
The Israeli military said it killed seven Hamas gunmen in northern Gaza and seized weaponry.
Israel’s Army Radio said troops in the area were trying to penetrate two Hamas bunkers, a mission it said could take two weeks amid resistance by the Islamist faction.
“Gaza City is being wiped out,” said one resident who asked not to be named.
“The (Israeli) pull-out was a ruse.” In Khan Younis, overnight Israeli shelling killed three Palestinians, medics said. Residents reported street fighting raging in western and southern areas of the city, where Israel said a soldier was killed in a Palestinian attack on Saturday.
Troops in Khan Younis seized a Hamas commander’s compound and killed several gunmen as well as a grenade- and knife-wielding Palestinian.
Israel last week announced the “dismantlement” of Hamas in Khan Younis. An Israeli official later clarified that, of four Hamas battalions originally there, one remained.
Gaza health authorities said on Sunday more than 27 300 Palestinians have been killed in the war. Israel says it has killed some 10 000 gunmen in its campaign to annihilate Hamas after the October 7 attack by the group, sworn to Israel’s destruction. In the rampage, 1 200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage.
More than 130 hostages are still in Gaza, and their possible release by Hamas is among issues under discussion in Egyptian- and Qatari-mediated negotiations, backed by the US, to secure a truce.
French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne was in Egypt and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expected in the region in the coming days to push for a ceasefire and hostage release.
Humanitarian issues in Gaza will be a top priority for Blinken on his trip, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday.
Blinken was en route to the Middle East in a trip that will include stops in Israel, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the West Bank.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden said the violence there had “reached intolerable levels” as he signed off on sanctions last week.