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Israel says it defeated Hamas in a key city, now aims for Gaza's southern border

Israeli troops enter a Hamas tunnel underneath a cemetery in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis on Jan. 27. Israel said Thursday that it had defeated Hamas in the city, the main battleground in recent days.
Sam McNeil
Israeli troops enter a Hamas tunnel underneath a cemetery in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis on Jan. 27. Israel said Thursday that it had defeated Hamas in the city, the main battleground in recent days.

Israel's defense minister said the military has defeated Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis and will be making a push to the nearby town on Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

The minister, Yoav Gallant, was accompanied by several generals on Thursday in Khan Younis, a Hamas stronghold and the main battleground in recent weeks.

The appearance by Gallant and the senior officers lent credence to the claim that Israel's military had effectively dismantled the Hamas forces defending the city.

"The operation in the Khan Yunis area is progressing and yielding impressive results," Gallant said. "We will also reach Rafah and eliminate terror elements that threaten us."

Rafah is about 7 miles farther south from Khan Younis, on Gaza's border with Egypt. Rafah is the last sizable town that's still in Palestinian hands.

Most of Gaza's 2.2 million civilians have fled their homes throughout the territory and are now crammed into the southern part of Gaza, with many camped out in tents in the Rafah area.

They are enduring a humanitarian crisis, made even harsher this week by cold, wet, windy weather. Much of the international aid entering Gaza comes through Rafah's border crossing with Egypt.

Egypt has long opposed letting the Palestinians enter its territory for a couple of reasons. Egypt fears Gaza's chronic turmoil could spill over into its country. It is also concerned that if Palestinians flee Gaza, they may not be allowed to return.

Questions about Hamas' remaining firepower

The latest Israeli military advances raise questions about how much fighting strength Hamas has left.

While Hamas is still battling back, Israel says the group is no longer operating with cohesive units and is limited to small-scale, guerrilla-style attacks.

Palestinians line up for a food distribution during the ongoing Israeli military operation in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis on Friday.
Hatem Ali / AP
Palestinians line up for a food distribution during the ongoing Israeli military operation in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis on Friday.

However, Naji Malaeb, a retired general in Lebanon who's now a military analyst, believes Hamas is adjusting to the large Israeli military presence in Gaza and will be able to keep fighting.

"Hamas is a militia. Militias fight according to field necessities," he said. Hamas, he added, "does not need big groups of fighters everywhere. Adapting new strategies is not a sign of weakness."

He believes the vast Hamas tunnel network will help the group survive and continue to fight.

Gallant gave an updated estimate on Hamas casualties, saying about 10,000 Hamas fighters have been killed, with a similar number injured.

NPR and other news organizations have not been able to independently verify the Israeli estimates, and Hamas refuses to provide casualty figures.

When the fighting began, military analysts estimated that Hamas fighters numbered anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000.

In addition, Hamas rocket fire into Israel has dropped off dramatically.

Since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, the group has launched more than 14,000 rockets at Israel, according to the Israeli government. But the vast majority were in the early days of the war, when Tel Aviv and other cities in central and southern Israel faced a constant threat of attack.

Hamas fired about a dozen rockets at Tel Aviv on Monday, and Israel's Iron Dome defense system shot them down as they approached the city. The rocket volley was noteworthy mostly because it was the first attack on the city in weeks.

It's not clear whether Hamas is running out of the rockets, or whether it's just too difficult for the militants to launch them with Israeli forces all over Gaza. Whatever the reason, this threat has diminished considerably.

Assessing a cease-fire plan

Meanwhile, Israel and Hamas are both reviewing a cease-fire proposal that would also include Hamas releasing some Israeli hostages and Israel freeing some Palestinian prisoners.

The Israeli government said Hamas is holding 132 Israelis who were seized on Oct. 7. Of that number, Israel believes 103 are still alive and 29 are dead.

The latest round of negotiations, like earlier rounds, is proving to be a drawn-out process, particularly for Hamas. The group has leaders in exile, while those in Gaza are widely believed to be operating in the group's tunnel network, making communications difficult.

For Israel, the working premise is that the top Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, is underground somewhere near his hometown of Khan Younis. This hasn't been independently verified, but raises the possibility that Sinwar and other Hamas leaders are weighing the cease-fire plan beneath the city, while the advancing Israeli troops are just above ground.

The Hamas leadership is seeking a permanent cease-fire and the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza. Under such a scenario, Hamas would try to portray this as a win, said Yohanan Tzoreff, a former Israeli military officer who's now at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

"When we're talking about organizations like Hamas, the idea is how to prevent victory by the other side," said Tzoreff. "It doesn't matter if you've lost 20,000 or 30,000 or 100,000 people. The most important issue is to stay in your territory, not to be crushed."

He believes Hamas will claim victory as long as its leadership can remain in Gaza and say it survived a war with Israel, the strongest military in the Middle East.

However, it's not clear who will be running Gaza in the future. Israel's military is likely to stay for a while, though Israel insists it does not want to remain for long. Israel also says it will not allow Hamas to return to power in Gaza, and it also opposes the Palestinian Authority, which handles Palestinian affairs in the West Bank.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his goal remains the total destruction of Hamas.

Yet many analysts draw a distinction between Israel taking military control of Gaza — which appears very plausible — and completely eliminating Hamas, both militarily and politically. Any such attempt is likely to take many months and wouldn't come with any guarantees on the outcome.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.