Hamas has begun deploying police forces and making partial salary payments to some of its civil servants in Gaza City in recent days, resurfacing in areas from which Israel had withdrawn the bulk of its troops a month ago, four residents and a senior official in the militant group said Saturday.
Signs of a Hamas resurgence in the Gaza Strip’s largest city underscore the group’s resilience despite Israel’s deadly air and ground campaign against it over the past four months. Israel has said it’s determined to crush Hamas militarily and prevent it from returning to power in Gaza, an enclave it has ruled since 2007.
In recent days, Israeli forces renewed strikes in the western and northwestern parts of Gaza City, including in areas where some of the salary distributions were reported to have taken place.
Four Gaza City residents told The Associated Press that in recent days, uniformed and plainclothes police officers deployed near police headquarters and other government offices, including near Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest. The residents said they saw both the return of civil servants and subsequent Israeli airstrikes near the makeshift offices.
The return of police marks an attempt to reinstate order in the devastated city after Israel withdrew a significant number of troops from northern Gaza last month, a Hamas official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The official said the group’s leaders had given directions to reestablish order in parts of the north where Israeli forces had withdrawn, including helping prevent the looting of shops and houses abandoned by residents who had heeded repeated Israeli evacuation orders and headed to the southern half of Gaza.
During Israel’s ground offensive, many homes and buildings were left half-standing or reduced to piles of scrap, rubble and dust.
Saeed Abdel-Bar, a resident of Gaza City, said a cousin received funds from a makeshift Hamas office near the hospital that was set up to distribute $200 payouts to government employees, including police officers and municipal workers.
Since seizing control of Gaza nearly 17 years ago, Hamas has been operating a government bureaucracy with tens of thousands of civil servants, including teachers, traffic cops and civil police who operate separately from the group’s secretive military wing.
The partial salary payments of $200 for at least some government employees signal that Israel has not delivered a knock-out blow to Hamas, even as it claims to have killed more than 9,000 Hamas fighters.
Ahmed Abu Hadrous, a Gaza City resident, said Israeli warplanes struck the area where the makeshift office is located multiple times earlier this week, including Saturday morning.
The strikes come roughly a month after Israeli military leaders said they had broken up the command structure of Hamas battalions in the north, but that individual fighters were continuing to carry out guerrilla-style attacks.
Meanwhile, combat continued in southern Gaza on Saturday.
At least 17 people, including women and children, were killed in two separate airstrikes overnight in Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah, on the border with Egypt, according to the registration office at a hospital where the bodies were taken.
The first strike hit a residential building east of Rafah, killing at least 13 people from the Hijazi family. The dead included four women and three children, hospital officials said. The second strike struck a house in the Jeneina area of Rafah, killing at least two men and two women from the Hams family.
The 17 bodies were taken to the Abu Yousef al-Najjar hospital, the main health facility in Rafah, and were seen by an AP journalist.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said Saturday that 107 people were killed over the preceding 24-hour period, bringing the wartime total to 27,238. More than 66,000 people have been wounded.
More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has taken refuge in Rafah and surrounding areas. A United Nations official on Friday said Rafah was becoming a “pressure cooker of despair.”
Israel’s defense minister warned earlier this week that Israel might expand combat to Rafah after focusing for the last few weeks on Khan Younis, the largest city of southern Gaza. While the statement has alarmed aid officials and international diplomats, Israel would risk significantly disrupting strategic relationships with the United States and Egypt if it were to send troops into Rafah.
The U.N. satellite center said Friday that its latest analysis of available imagery indicated more than 69,000 structures in Gaza – nearly one-third of all structures in the territory – have been at least moderately damaged in nearly four months of fighting.
Israeli leaders have said they will keep fighting until Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, is crushed, even while agreeing to long pauses that are accompanied by the release of hostages.
International mediators continue to work to close wide gaps between Israel and Hamas over a proposed cease-fire deal put forth this week, nearly four month since Hamas and other militants captured about 250 hostages during their deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that triggered the war.
Hamas continue to hold dozens of captives, after more than 100 were released during a one-week truce in November. Those releases were in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.
The conflict has leveled vast swaths of the tiny coastal enclave, displaced 85% of its population and pushed a quarter of residents to starvation.
Meanwhile, United States — which has negotiated tenants of the deal along with Israel, Egypt and Qatar — launched an air assault on dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard late Friday, in the opening salvo of retaliation for the drone strike that killed three U.S. troops in Jordan last weekend.