Israel-Gaza Situation Report: IDF Expands Ground Operation Into The South

The IDF says it has entered the “third phase” of ground operation and has penetrated deep into southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis.

byHoward Altman|
Israel says it has encircled and entered Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.
IDF screencap


Despite warnings from U.S. officials about limiting civilian casualties and the length of its campaign, Israel on Tuesday announced it has expanded operations that have been relegated to the northern Gaza Strip and encircled and entered a major southern city in Southern Gaza.

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Chief of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) General Staff his troops are in the “third phase” of ground operations and “are now encircling the Khan Yunis area in the southern Gaza Strip.”

Khan Yunis is located in the southern end of the Gaza Strip. (Google Earth)

“Those who thought that the IDF would not know how to renew the fighting after the pause were mistaken, and Hamas is already feeling this. Many Hamas operatives, including senior commanders, have been eliminated in recent days.”

The IDF is operating “professionally; evacuating the population from combat zones; striking Hamas from above and below ground with combined strikes from the air, sea, and land,” he said. “Many ask about the destruction in Gaza. Hamas is the address. [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar is the address. Our forces find in nearly every building and house weapons and in many houses terrorists, and engage them in combat.”

Smoke rises above buildings in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, as battles between Israel and Hamas militants continue on December 5, 2023. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP) (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli troops involved in the Khan Yunis have "penetrated the heart of the city," The Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday.

The IDF achieved this penetration on Monday, but the announcement was only made on Tuesday, the Post reported.

"The IDF took a variety of maneuvers to penetrate Khan Yunis. Simultaneously, the IDF invaded Khan Yunis from the east, so that Hamas would need to fight on multiple fronts. A massive force of multiple brigades, including from Division 162, were thrown into the onslaught to take over Hamas's most crucial city in southern Gaza."

The IDF is expanding its attacks into the south because it it claims Hamas leaders are hiding out there and that a number of hostages are being held in that area.

The IDF's decision to push south comes days after two Biden administration cabinet members issued blunt statements regarding concerns they have about how Israel is conducting the war.

On Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned Israel that the failure to protect civilians could have dangerous implications not just for Palestinians but for Israel as well. It was the most stark rebuke of how Israel is executing its military operations in Gaza so far from a top U.S. official.

"So the lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians," Austin said during his speech at the Reagan Defense Forum in California on Saturday. "The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. You see, in this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat."

Austin's comments came after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemingly tried to dissuade Israel from a long and expanded campaign in Gaza.

“The entire Israeli society is united behind the goal of dismantling Hamas, even if it takes months,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told him during his trip to Israel last week.

“I don’t think you have the credit for that,” he retorted sharply, according to the Israeli media. Blinken was referring to credit with President Biden, as the White House bends to the growing pressure against Israel's actions from the Democratic left, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, the The IDF continued operations in the north, saying it located "additional Hamas military infrastructure" in the Al-Shati area of the northern Gaza Strip. 

"Hamas uses civilian infrastructure such as schools and civilian buildings to launch rockets, store weapons and carry out attacks against the IDF," it claimed. "This is just one example of the broader operational method used by Hamas in Al-Shati and other areas. It reflects Hamas' combat tactics throughout the entire strip - using civilian buildings and infrastructure for terrorist purposes. Hamas continues to endanger the lives and safety of Gazan civilians."

To date, nearly 16,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 41,000 injured, according to Gaza Health Ministry figures cited by the United Nations Tuesday. There have been more than 1,200 Israelis killed and more than 5,400 injured, the UN said, citing Israeli authorities.

In addition, more than 46,000 housing units have been destroyed in Gaza during Israeli bombardment, with more than 1.87 million Palestinians displaced.

The IDF estimated that about two civilians have been killed for every dead Hamas fighter in the Gaza Strip, senior military officials said Monday, The Times of Israel reported. The IDF that it was deploying high-tech mapping software to try to reduce noncombatant deaths.

Asked about media reports that 5,000 Hamas fighters had been killed, one of the senior officials told reporters at a briefing, “The numbers are more or less right.”

The War Zone cannot independently verify casualty figures provided by either side.

People mourn as they collect the bodies of Palestinians killed in an airstrike on December 5, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Both the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas say they have been putting up a stiff resistance to Israel in Khan Yunis.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad released a video of what it says are its attacks there.

Hamas claimed it destroyed a large number of vehicles and killed several Israeli troops.

"We have counted the total or partial destruction of 24 military vehicles only in the fighting areas in the city of Khan Yunis," Hamas said on Telegram. "They targeted 18 soldiers with a direct attack. Al-Qassam snipers killed and wounded eight soldiers. They blew up a house in which a special force had been barricaded with explosives, and placed another force in a minefield prepared in advance. They destroyed military concentrations with a short-range missile system, and directed intense missile barrages at various targets and with different ranges into our occupied territories."

The War Zone could not independently confirm those claims.

Hamas also released video it claims to be of its fighters emerging from a tunnel near IDF forces in the Juhr al-Dik area, east of the central region.

"Watch part of the process of monitoring the enemy’s tents and positioning before carrying out the process of planting and detonating explosive devices among the forces present at the site," Hamas said on Telegram.

The video only shows what appears to be someone emerging from underground and recording the IDF troops. There is no explosion or attack seen.

Hamas also launched several rocket barrages against Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and Ashkelon.

As the fighting continued, thousands of Palestinian families, already displaced since the war erupted, were forced to move again, this time to Rafah in southern Gaza.

Many Palestinians ignored the evacuation orders and used leaflets dropped by the IDF as fuel to cook food while they stayed.

Days earlier, video emerged of an Israeli drone threatening civilians in Masafer Yatta:

"I advise you not to resist in any form, or we will kill you."

While the Israeli government has argued that Palestinians have a safe place to go in Gaza called Mowasi, it's a "desolate wasteland of sand dunes next to the Mediterranean Sea" as you can see in this Sky News report.

Footage emerged Saturday of Israeli airstrikes citing Hamad Towers in Southern Gaza. The video shows what appears to be an Israeli 2,000-pound SPICE 2000 precision-guided bomb striking the building.

Israel's Iron Dome air defense system has proven invaluable to Israel, but even that fails sometimes, as you can see in the video below. You can read more about Israel's vaunted multi-layered integrated air defense system (IADS) in our deep dive here.

The U.K. Defense Ministry on Saturday it was resuming surveillance flights over Gaza in an effort to help find hostages. Those flights were halted as part of the seven-day ceasefire that broke down Dec. 1.

A witness to the Hamas Oct. 7 surprise attack gave Israeli investigators chilling testimony about seeing Hamas gang-rape another woman than cutting off her breast.

On Monday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said one reason Hamas didn't want to turn over women hostages is that they don't want them to talk about what they experienced.

Video emerged from that invasion of Hamas fighters emerging from a boat and attacking Zikim beach near Gaza.

A "markedly tense meeting" was held Tuesday between a group of recently released hostages, as well as family members of those still held in Gaza, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the other members of the war cabinet.

Those present at the gathering in Herzliya told media outlets afterward that voices were raised and that Netanyahu did not engage directly with any of their demands, largely reading remarks off of a piece of paper, angering those present, The Times of Israel reported. In recordings, some attendees could be heard screaming at the prime minister to resign.

According to several Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu told the families “there is no possibility right now to bring everyone home. Can anyone really imagine that if that was an option, anyone would refuse it?” — a statement met with outrage from many. Some even said they got up and left the meeting midway through.

The number of hostages still held in Gaza has risen to 138 people, IDF Spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari announced on Tuesday night, according to The Jerusalem Post

One person previously considered missing since Hamas's October 7 attacks has now been confirmed as being in Hamas captivity. In addition, about 20 women and children still remain in Gaza as hostages, with the remaining number men. 

Hamas said that there will be no hostage negotiations until Israeli aggression toward Gaza stops.

In another sign of the Biden administration's growing impatience with Israel, Blinken on Tuesday announced the U.S. is "implementing a new visa restriction policy targeting individuals believed to have been involved in undermining peace, security, or stability in the West Bank."

Immediate family members of such persons also may be subject to these restrictions, Blinken said in his statement.

"The United States has consistently opposed actions that undermine stability in the West Bank, including attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and Palestinian attacks against Israelis," Blinken said. "We have underscored to the Israeli government the need to do more to hold accountable extremist settlers who have committed violent attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. As President Biden has repeatedly said, those attacks are unacceptable. Last week in Israel, I made clear that the United States is ready to take action using our own authorities."

It was the first time extremist settlers have been sanction by the U.S. since the Clinton administration, Axios reported.

Nine relatives of CNN photojournalist Ibrahim Dahman were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza, the network reported Monday.

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) posted a rare photo of an IAF-F-16D equipped with four SUU-25 flare dispensers emerged on social media. The dispensers carry target-marking or illuminating flares.

Israel has developed a plan to use large pumps to flood Hamas’ vast network of tunnels with water from the Mediterranean Sea to drive fighters from their underground hideouts, The Wall Street Journal reported. The plan, which has yet to be enacted, also carries concerns about threatening Gaza’s drinking water supply, U.S. officials have said.

The IDF finished assembling large seawater pumps roughly one mile north of the Al-Shati refugee camp around the middle of last month. The five pumps could flood the tunnels in weeks, the publication reported.

U.S. officials only learned of the option early last month and discussions ensued weighing its feasibility and environmental impact against the military value of disabling the tunnels, officials told the Journal.

U.S. officials said they didn’t know how close the Israeli government was to carrying out the plan. Israel hasn’t made a final decision to move ahead, nor has it ruled the plan out, officials said.

Sentiment inside the U.S. was mixed. Some U.S. officials privately expressed concern about the plan, while other officials said the U.S. supports the disabling of the tunnels and said there wasn’t necessarily any U.S. opposition to the plan. The Israelis have identified about 800 tunnels so far, though they acknowledge the network is bigger than that.

Lebanon's army said one of its soldiers was killed and three wounded when Israeli shelling hit near a village in south Lebanon near the Israeli border, Reuters reported. It would mark the first deadly incident for the Lebanese army since the Gaza war began on Oct 7.

The Israeli army did not immediately respond to a request for comment, Reuters said.

The IDF did not address that claim on Telegram, but said it struck "a number of Hezbollah terror targets in Lebanon, including terrorist infrastructure and military posts used for weapons storage and by terrorist operatives."

Those strikes came after the IDF said several munitions were launched from Lebanon into northern Israel, all landing in open areas and causing no damage. In addition, the IDF said "a hostile aircraft that crossed from Lebanon was located in the area of Margaliot in northern Israel. IDF soldiers that were dispatched to the scene are recovering the aircraft. No injuries were reported."

Hezbollah said on Telegram it targeted IDF troops at several locations near the border.

In an effort to reduce tensions along the Lebanese border, a French diplomatic delegation will arrive in Israel in the coming days to engage with Israeli and Lebanese officials, the Times of Israel reported.

The delegation includes Alice Rufo, the defense policy director at the French Defense Ministry, and Frederic Mondoloni, the political director of the French Foreign Ministry. They are expected to discuss Gaza with Israeli officials, but will not enter the Strip. It is unclear whether they will continue from Israel to Beirut.

The French administration has vast leverage on Lebanese internal politics and may use its influence to work on tamping down the attacks on Israel from the northern border.

In the wake of Sunday's Houthi missile strikes on three civilian cargo vessels in the Red Sea and the shootdown of three Houthi drones by a U.S. Navy destroyer, the White House is talking about creating a new international naval task force. You can read more about those attacks, and the response by the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Carney, in our initial reporting here.

"We are in talks with other countries about maritime task force of sorts involving the ships from partner nations alongside the United States in ensuring safe passage of ships in the Red Sea," U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday. "What the precise structure would be, I will defer to the consultations that are taking place, only to say that, at a broad level, the idea that we would work with other countries and their naval vessels to try to provide a greater level of security through the Red Sea."

Sullivan offered no specific details though acknowledged that it would be a new addition to existing task forces providing "maritime security." While he did not name any, Task Force 153 is an international effort that focuses "on international maritime security and capacity building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden."

On Monday, 100 aid trucks  carrying humanitarian supplies and 69,000 liters of fuel entered Gaza from Egypt, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“This is well below the daily average of 170 trucks and 110,000 liters of fuel that had entered during the humanitarian pause implemented between Nov. 24 and Nov. 30,” OCHA said. 

The Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory stated that” the conditions required to deliver aid to the people of Gaza do not exist. If possible, an even more hellish scenario is about to unfold, one in which humanitarian operations may not be able to respond. What we see today are shelters with no capacity, a health system on its knees, a lack of clean drinking water, no proper sanitation and poor nutrition for people already mentally and physically exhausted: a textbook formula for epidemics and a public health disaster.”  

In addition to the aid that came in, 25 wounded people and 583 foreign or dual nationals were evacuated from Gaza to Egypt and ten humanitarian staff have entered Gaza.

USAID chief Samantha Power arrived in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula where she announced more than $21 million more in additional aid to Palestinians affected by the war.

The is a developing story. We will update it when there is more news to report about the Israel-Hamas war.

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