Israel‘s military says it has surrounded Gaza city, dividing the enclave in two as it prepares to carry out the next stage of its ground offensive.
An Israeli military analyst spoken to by The National says the aim is to concentrate forces in Gaza city, surrounding and cutting off the epicentre of Hamas resistance and potentially the scene of the hardest fighting to come.
“Today, there is north Gaza and south Gaza,” Adm Daniel Hagari said, calling it a “significant stage” in Israel’s war against Hamas.
Israeli and Arab military experts had predicted that the Israeli military would enter Gaza city within 48 hours, where it is expected to attempt to flush out Hamas militants from underground tunnels.
“Israel is now in the third stage of the incursion or invasion and its manoeuvring process, and the third stage is based on entering the Gaza Strip into civilian areas and built-up areas,” Saleh Al Maaytah, a retired Jordanian general and military strategist, told Sky News Arabia.
“In combat military doctrine, the attacking forces will try to be close together and are now fighting in the northern sector on internal roads, rather than the external ones like the major highways.”
Over the past week, the Israeli army has been focused on encircling Gaza city, located in the northern part of the enclave, and limiting its ground operations from the border in the north to about 18km to 19km south, and at a distance from east to west of about 8km.
The Gaza Strip is about 44km long and 12km at its widest.
On Monday, Israel’s military also confirmed its ground forces took control of a Hamas base, including observation posts, training centres and tunnels while its air force attacked about 450 Hamas targets.
Fighter jets have killed Hamas commanders, including one responsible for “special security”, the Israeli army said on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
According to Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official who went on to serve as a senior Arab affairs adviser and negotiator during the first and second intifadas, or uprisings, the operation of encircling Gaza city has “been going [according] to plan, as expected”.
“The other major challenge is the underground tunnels. So far, the Israeli army has been able to eliminate some substantial part of these tunnels but there is much more left to deal with. The tunnels are becoming less of an asset for Hamas and more of a burden now,” Mr Melamed told The National.
“Due to the Israeli massive military presence on the ground, it has basically forced Hamas militants to move more and more into the tunnels. So, in a way, this has effectively reduced their manoeuvrability capacity, because they’re staying in the terrain and trying to emerge from time to time.”
Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee told The National that they had been informing the remaining citizens of Gaza city to head south, vowing to allow safe passage along the central Salah Al Din Road for up to three to four hours a day.
However, this was rejected by the head of the Hamas media office in Gaza.
“Israel is falsely claiming that it is not targeting civilians. It is starving the civilians and targeting them with its air strikes. We have received dozens of reports about dead bodies on different streets in Gaza and around hospitals’ perimeters,” Salama Marouf told reporters on Monday.
“We do not trust Israel’s assurances about transferring the injured and need the ambulances to be escorted by cars from the Red Cross.”
Gaza’s Health Ministry said more than 9,700 Palestinians have been killed in nearly a month of war in the besieged enclave, more than 4,000 of them children and minors.
The death toll is expected rise as Israeli troops advance into dense, urban neighbourhoods. About 30 Israeli soldiers have been killed fighting in Gaza so far.
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