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GAZA: Israeli forces stormed southern Gaza’s main city on Tuesday in what they called the most intense day of combat in five weeks of ground operations against Hamas, and hospitals struggled to cope with scores of Palestinian dead and wounded.

In what appeared to be the biggest ground assault in Gaza since a truce with Hamas unravelled last week, Israel said its troops - who were backed by warplanes - had reached the heart of Khan Younis and were also surrounding the city.

“We are in the most intense day since the beginning of the ground operation,” the commander of the Israeli military’s Southern Command, General Yaron Finkelman, said in a statement.

He said Israeli forces were also fighting in Jabalia, a large urban refugee camp and Hamas hotbed in northern Gaza next to Gaza City, and in Shuja’iyya, east of the city.

“We are in the heart of Jabalia, in the heart of Shuja’iyya, and now also in the heart of Khan Younis,” he said.

Hamas’ armed wing, the al Qassam Brigades, said its fighters had destroyed or damaged 24 Israeli military vehicles and snipers had killed or wounded eight Israeli soldiers in ongoing clashes in various areas of Khan Younis.

Separately, Gaza health officials said large numbers of people were killed in an Israeli strike on houses in Deir al-Balah, north of Khan Younis. Dr Eyad Al-Jabri, head of the Shuhada Al-Aqsa Hospital there, told Reuters at least 45 were killed. Reuters could not reach the area or confirm the toll.

After days of ordering residents to flee the area, Israeli forces dropped new leaflets on Tuesday with instructions to stay inside shelters during the assault.

“For your safety, stay in the shelters and the hospitals where you are. Don’t get out. Going out is dangerous. You have been warned,” said the leaflets, addressed to residents of six districts amounting to around a quarter of Khan Younis.

“Sixty days after the war began, our forces are now encircling the Khan Younis area...,” said Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, chief of Israel’s General Staff, referring to the Oct. 7 Hamas incursion into Israel that triggered the conflict.

“We have secured many Hamas strongholds in the northern Gaza Strip, and now we are operating against its strongholds in the south,” Halevi told a press conference.

The Israelis, who largely seized Gaza’s northern half last month before pausing for the week-long truce, say they are now extending their ground offensive to the south of the enclave.

They believe Hamas commanders they aim to eliminate are holed up in part of a vast underground tunnel network in the territory.

Israel unleashed its campaign in retribution for an attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas fighters who rampaged through Israeli towns, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages, according to Israel’s tally.

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