Hamas hounds Israeli forces in main Gaza cities

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Bassam Masoud and Dan Williams

DOHA/GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -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 Palestinian Islamist group's deadly cross-border rampage in Israel, there was persistent fighting in Gaza City in the north of the densely populated enclave, and in Khan Younis to the south.

At the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said 17 of Hamas' 24 combat battalions had been dismantled. The rest, he said, were mostly in the southern Gaza Strip - including Rafah, on the enclave's Egyptian border.

"We'll take care of them, too," he said, according to a statement from his office. Hamas does not publish its losses.

The prospect of a push into Rafah has piled pressure on the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians who have fled their homes elsewhere and are sheltering there. It also worries Cairo, which has said it will not admit any influx of Palestinian refugees in what it describes a bid to prevent any permanent dispossession.

An Israeli official told Reuters, however, that the military would coordinate 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 neighborhood.

"There is no safe place in Gaza, from the wire fence to the wire fence (borders from north to south), there is no safe place," he told Reuters.

Palestinian health officials said eight people were killed in separate Israeli air strikes on Deir Al-Balah areas in the central Gaza Strip. Deir Al-Balah is the second city in the enclave where Israel has not yet deployed tanks.

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. Netanyahu described these on Sunday as "mopping-up operations".

Before dawn on Sunday, air strikes destroyed several multi-storey buildings, including an Egyptian-funded housing project, residents said. The 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 clashes at the sites.

"Gaza City is being wiped out," one resident who asked not to be named told Reuters. "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 compound and killed several gunmen, the military said. Netanyahu said Israeli forces in the city were "neutralising" Hamas tunnels that run throughout Gaza, enabling gunmen to hole up and launch ambushes.

"This demands more time yet," he told his ministers.

Gaza health authorities, who do not differentiate between militants and civilians in their tallies, said on Sunday more than 27,300 Palestinians have been confirmed killed since the war began. They say that 70% of those killed have been women and children. Thousands more are feared lost amid the ruins.

Israel says it has killed some 10,000 gunmen in its campaign to annihilate Hamas after the Oct. 7 attack by the group, which is sworn to Israel's destruction. In the rampage, 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

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, that are backed by the United States, to secure a truce.

Hamas has demanded an end to the war. Israel rules that out but is open to a temporary truce.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hosted French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne in a meeting on Sunday that Sisi's office said emphasized Egypt's collaborative efforts to establish a ceasefire and deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Doha and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Tala Ramadan in DubaiEditing by Frances Kerry)