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ISRAELI forces have stormed into the centre of the terror stronghold Khan Younis as the ground offensive expands beyond northern Gaza.
The IDF says the troops have been involved in the “bloodiest fighting” since the start of the war in the city – believed to be the hiding spot of Hamas leaders including “Hamas Bin Laden” Yahya Sinwar.
The IDF said the troops have reached Khan Younis as Israel launches the third stage of its offensive in the besieged enclave.
Remaining hostages are also believed to be in the area, meaning IDF troops are expecting a “final standoff”.
And it won’t end for months, even if all leaders are found, because the area is expected to be heavily booby-trapped.
Head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman said: “We are in the heart of Jabaliya, in the heart of Shejaiya and starting last night, also in the heart of Khan Younis.
“This is the most intense day [of battles] since the start of the [ground] maneuver, in terms of terrorists killed, the number of engagements and the use of fire from the ground and the air.
“We plan to continue attacking to deepen achievements.”
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi added that forces have now surrounded the Khan Younis area in southern Gaza.
It comes after “many senior commanders” were killed, he added.
“Whoever thought that the IDF would not know how to resume the fighting after the truce, was mistaken. Hamas is feeling this strongly.
“In the last few days, many operatives, including senior commanders, were eliminated.
“We captured many Hamas strongholds in northern Gaza, and now we are operating against its ‘centers of gravity’ in the south.”
Director of BICOM (British Israel Communications and Research Centre) Richard Pater told Sun Online the “household names” of senior Hamas leadership are believed to be “part of the underground labyrinth underneath in Khan Younis,” according to Israeli intelligence.
But he explained how it is now more complicated due to the large number of civilians evacuated from the north of Gaza.
“So they now find themselves in the Khan Younis area,” he added. “And similarly, the hostages that remain are also thought to be in that area, so it could be a final standoff.
“But there’s also a sense that the Hamas leadership at least, could, as they have in the past, use other people as their fodder to take their hit and escape, to live, to fight another day.”
Asked about the third stage of Israel’s offensive Pater said that IDF will indeed be moving to the south and noted the operation is going to have vast differences from the one in the north.
He also highlighted that the success of the Israelicould take weeks or even months.
He said: “First of all, making every effort to clear the civilian population from those areas, and only then go in with ground forces again forever cognizant that these areas are going to be booby-trapped, laid with mines and explosives, and that there is that duality of protecting a Palestinian civilian population whilst also protecting the IDF soldiers, lives as well.
“Nevertheless, they will have to proceed slowly and cautiously into those areas, into the layers that Hamas has set, and hopefully there’ll be successes engaging with the Hamas fighters as speedily as possible.
“But I would caution us all that this could take still weeks or even months.”