During their swift takeover of Gaza in 2007, Hamas militants from the group’s Khan Younis stronghold sped northward up the central Salah ad-Din Road, heading to Gaza City. They met little resistance from the western-backed forces of the Palestinian Authority.
“They looked left and right, no one was there, so they just kept going” towards the capital, a foreign diplomat then based in the region recalled. In fewer than six days, Hamas had seized the entire coastal enclave.
Now the Israeli army has moved south along that same road towards Khan Younis, having already overrun Gaza City, as it seeks to end Hamas’s more than 15-year rule in the territory.
For both the Israel Defense Forces and the Hamas leaders thought to be hiding in tunnels under Khan Younis, the battle for the city now teeming with refugees from the north has become the new focus of the war – when international pressure is mounting on Israel to reduce the number of civilian casualties from its operation.
The significance of Khan Younis is both military and symbolic. Situated in Gaza’s more conservative south, the enclave’s second-largest city has long been favourable terrain for Hamas.
Its refugee camp, founded to shelter Palestinians displaced in the 1948 war that followed the creation of Israel, is the birthplace of two of Hamas’s top leaders, Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif. Israeli officials believe that the two men, and other senior Hamas leaders, are hiding in tunnels beneath the city.
“One of the goals the Israeli government has formulated is to get the leadership of Hamas,” said Eyal Hulata, who was head of Israel’s National Security Council until this year. “Sinwar is the embodiment of Hamas’s ability to continue to govern after the war ends. Of course there are broader operational goals, but at the top is the attempt to reach him.”
There are other reasons why Khan Younis is in the sights of Israel’s military planners. After Israel’s devastating assault on the north of the strip, Khan Younis is now one of the main locations from which Hamas militants are still able to launch rockets.
Military officials also suspect that the tunnels beneath the city could be where many of the hostages captured by Hamas during their October 7th attack – which claimed the lives of 1,200 people, according to Israel – are being held.
“If Gaza City is taken by the IDF and after that Khan Younis, it means that [apart from] Rafah, which is a quite small city, Hamas won’t have any broad urban areas under control,” said Michael Milshtein, a former IDF intelligence official. “But it will take time. It will take at least weeks.”
Since the IDF began its southern offensive early last week, a division of commandos and paratroopers – backed by armour, artillery and close air support from armed drones and attack helicopters – have encircled Khan Younis primarily from the north and east. Targeted raids have been launched, some reaching deep into the city’s heart.
Ehud Yaari, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that if Hamas’s Khan Younis brigade – which contains two battalions considered among the militant group’s strongest – were defeated, Hamas’s remaining brigades in south and central Gaza would be trapped and isolated, and thereby easier to eliminate. “It’s a decisive point in the campaign – not the end, but it could be the point of Hamas’s military collapse,” he said.
Although it will involve similar forms of urban combat to that in the north, analysts said that there would be different dynamics at play in the battle for Khan Younis. One is that the city’s terrain is different from the high-rise tower blocks of Gaza City. As well as the buildings in the city, Hamas would also fight from “all kinds of farms and in the rural or semirural areas”, according to Milstein. “This is a different kind of challenge.”
But the biggest difference is that hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled to Khan Younis to escape Israel’s bombardment of the north – where the level of destruction in some places has been compared with the fate of German cities in the second world war. The influx has roughly doubled the Khan Younis governorate’s pre-war population of 400,000, and will make combat in the city’s streets and alleys even more complex.
According to Palestinian health officials, more than 17,000 people have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s offensive, and as the death toll has mounted, US officials have become increasingly outspoken in urging Israel to do more to protect civilians.
“The US has made clear that Israel has to make maximum efforts to avoid civilian casualties,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken said in recent days. “There does remain a gap between ... the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground.”
Israeli military officials say they are trying to reduce civilian deaths, using mobile phone messages and airdropping leaflets with QR codes to warn Gazans to evacuate specific neighbourhoods for safer areas. They have also designated Muwasi, a 14sq km strip of land on Gaza’s coast, as a “safe zone” and urged Palestinians to relocate there.
Yaari said he expected that Israel’s military tactics would also change, to include “more of an emphasis on elite infantry and less on tanks and artillery – more precision strikes and less toppling whole buildings”.
But aid groups have dismissed the plans as inadequate. Electricity shortages prevent many from accessing the QR codes. Israel has bombed areas such as Rafah previously designated as safe. And UN agencies have branded the idea of cramming hundreds of thousands of people into the tiny Muwasi safe zone as unworkable.
“The pace of the military assault in southern Gaza is a repeat of the assault in northern Gaza,” Martin Griffiths, the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator, said this week. “It has made no place safe for civilians in southern Gaza, which had been a cornerstone of the humanitarian plan to protect civilians ... Without places of safety, that plan is in tatters.”
Few observers think that will change any time soon, because even if Israel’s military succeeds in taking Khan Younis, it will still have more to do if it is to fulfil its overarching military goal of eradicating Hamas – particularly if it does not find Sinwar and Deif in the city.
“I expect to see a similar situation: fighting, destruction, loss of life ... but I’m not sure it’ll be the last battle,” said Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a Ramallah-based think-tank, adding that Sinwar and other Hamas leaders may be able to slip out of Khan Younis via the tunnels.
“Previously it was said Gaza City was the ‘centre of gravity’ for Hamas, and now it’s Khan Younis. It’s the second station, but it may not be the final station [for Israel].” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023