Israeli forces are "peeling back" Hamas infrastructure in Khan Younis, more than two months after entering the Gaza Strip's main southern city, and believe the Palestinian faction's Gaza chief is hiding there, a senior military officer said on Thursday.
Progress in Khan Younis has prompted Israel to describe Rafah, further to the south and abutting Gaza's border with Egypt, as next in line for a ground sweep by troops and tanks.
The majority of Gaza's 2.3 million million people are now sheltering in the area, since being displaced from elsewhere in four months of fighting, afraid they are next in the line of fire.
The situation in Rafah - after Khan Younis, the biggest southern city - is also being watched by Cairo, which has ruled out allowing any refugee influx across the fence into its Sinai peninsula.
A senior Israeli military officer said Khan Younis operations to destroy Hamas, and retrieve any hostages who might be held there, would continue "whether it will take two hours, or two days, or two weeks or two months - or even more".
Israeli troops have killed 2,000 gunmen, wounded 4,000 and captured "hundreds" more, the officer told Reuters on condition of anonymity. That had largely demolished Hamas' Khan Younis Brigade, whose pre-war strength was five battalions, he said.
This could not be independently verified. Hamas has seldom published its deployments or losses.
"The Khan Younis Brigade was the most powerful that Hamas had, with a very dominant commander," the officer said. "We are peeling it back, layer by layer."
Attacks by Palestinian gunmen were increasingly scattershot, suggesting a loss of command and control, the officer said. Hamas says its ambushes continue to inflict Israeli casualties.
Khan Younis is the hometown of Hamas' Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, mastermind of the Oct. 7 killing and kidnapping spree in southern Israel that sparked the war.
"I assess beyond a doubt that he is in Khan Younis - along with some of the remaining Hamas leadership," the officer said.
The military has published images of what is said were Hamas tunnels uncovered in Khan Younis, with white-tiled living spaces and barred cells assumed to have held hostages.
The officer side-stepped a question on whether the tunnels were extensive enough to allow senior Hamas figures to slip out of Khan Younis and evade Israel's dragnet. "You can move quite a few kilometres (underground)," he said without elaborating.
The military says 228 soldiers have been killed and 1,314 wounded in Gaza Strip ground operations that began on Oct 20, figures that did not specify casualties from Khan Younis.