IDF consolidates gains in Khan Younis

Members of Israel’s 98th Division operations in the narrow alleys of Khan Younis. (IDF)

The Israel Defense Forces have degraded Hamas battalions in the southern city of Khan Younis, a process that has taken two months of complex fighting. The IDF’s 98th division has spearheaded this battle which is expected to culminate in a victory and make room for new challenges to be tackled inside Gaza. Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant met with an IDF artillery unit and vowed that, despite the long war, “we will break Hamas.” He said Israel’s goal was to “eliminate them as a governing system, and as a military organization capable of launching attacks against the State of Israel.”

Commander of the 98th Division Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus said on January 29 that Israel is “engaged in a simultaneous maneuver — fighting both above and below ground, operating with professionalism, with cooperation between special forces, commandos, and the division’s combat teams. Hamas terrorists are fleeing. We are striking them and their infrastructure both above and below ground.” Goldfus spoke to soldiers from within a tunnel where a Hamas battalion commander’s office was uncovered, illustrating how Hamas is “fleeing,” he said.

According to a recent report, there were four Hamas battalions in Khan Younis with an estimated 4,500 members. This is consistent with the overall Hamas structure prior to the war, which consisted of some 24 battalions and up to 30,000 men. Israel had already defeated ten of those battalions in mid-November, mostly through a large ground maneuver and a month of airstrikes in northern Gaza. Now, most of the Hamas battalions in Khan Younis are also defeated and 2,700 of their men eliminated. “Besides attacks on Hamas’s terror forces, the IDF has struck 3,320 targets and 400 tunnel shafts in Khan Yunis, 150 of which it has destroyed,” The Jerusalem Post reported. The IDF said in early December that 800 tunnel shafts had been found in Gaza.

The amount of terrorist infrastructure found in Khan Younis according to daily reports by the IDF appears very significant. For instance on January 29, the IDF said that infrastructure uncovered included the “battalion headquarters, the Hamas terrorist organization’s training compounds, communication posts, the Khan Yunis Brigade’s command center, a military intelligence building, a significant rocket manufacturing facility, and offices of many senior officials, including Yahya Sinwar’s office.” The IDF also believes it has made “significant progress in dismantling the underground terrain in Khan Yunis.”

In another case in Khan Younis, the IDF found a tunnel under a cemetery. Hamas used many civilian structures and institutions to hide its tunnels, including hospitals. The use of a cemetery appears to be a new phenomenon that has been uncovered. According to the IDF report on January 29, soldiers were investigating the tunnel and came across “explosives, sliding doors and blast-proof doors, and eliminated terrorists who were inside. Inside the tunnel route, the forces located an office from which a Khan Yunis Brigade battalion commander managed the attack on October 7th, an operations room, a command and control center and the living quarters of senior officials of the Hamas terrorist organization.”

Fighting continues in Khan Younis as well. Israeli forces call in air strikes when possible and conduct raids. They also operate in a complex environment, given that there are two hospital compounds in the area. Many civilians have been called upon to leave Khan Younis in the last two months, and they are generally moving toward Rafah near the Egyptian border or west toward the Mawasi humanitarian area. Amidst the fighting, the IDF says it continues to find large numbers of weapons, such as AK-47s and RPGs.

Hamas rocket fire had been reduced during the month of January, but on January 29 the group fired a large barrage of rockets toward central Israel. It has also targeted the southern city of Ashkelon, illustrating that despite its losses, it still can organize long-range rocket attacks. During his visit with IDF artillerymen on January 29, Gallant estimated that at least a quarter of Hamas terrorists have been killed and a quarter wounded. This is in line with other estimates that assess Hamas has lost more than half of its men.

Questions remain about the next step in Gaza. The only major remaining Hamas-held stronghold is the area of Rafah on the Egyptian border. At the same time, Israel continues to consider a new deal with Hamas that could result in the release of remaining hostages. There are also questions about the overall percentage of Hamas tunnels that have been damaged or destroyed in almost four months of war.

Reporting from Israel, Seth J. Frantzman is an adjunct fellow at FDD and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal. He is the acting news editor and senior Middle East correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post. 

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