Fierce fighting rages across Gaza between Israel and Hamas

Savage fighting continued in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Israel on Thursday, with Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire.

Israeli forces have stormed Kahn Younes, Gaza's second-largest city, on the hunt for the Hamas leader behind the bloody 7 October attack in southern Israel.

Predicting a "total collapse of law and order soon" in Gaza, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres once again called for a humanitarian ceasefire, which was scathingly refused by Israel.

The Israeli government authorised a "minimal" delivery of fuel to Gaza to avoid "humanitarian collapse" and epidemics, however.

Since launching their ground offensive against the north on October 27, Israeli forces have extended their military assault into southern Gaza.

Israel first ordered Palestinian civilians to evacuate south, who have since been corraled into an increasingly cramped pocket of land under a rain of bombs and bullets.

Israeli troops, armoured vehicles and bulldozers reached Khan Younes city centre on Wednesday, according to witnesses.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) that evening claimed to have “pierced" Hamas' "defensive lines”, “eliminated a number of terrorists” and destroyed around “30 tunnel entrances”.

Palestinians who fled Khan Younes set up a makeshift camp near the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, some 10km away.

“We are devastated, mentally overwhelmed,” said Amal Mahdi, who survived an Israeli raid. “We need someone to support us, find a solution to get us out of this situation.”

“We arrived here, homeless, it rained on us last night, there is no food, no bread, no flour,” another man on the scene Ghassan Bakr told reporters.

Those who have fled the violence find themselves sleeping in tents made of plastic sheeting and wooden slats, collecting branches here and there to make fire and cook semolina - their only food. Their humanitarian condition grows increasingly dire.

Hunting for the Hamas leader

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli forces were "surrounding the house of [Yahya] Sinwar", the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, in Khan Kahn Younes.

“Sinwar is hiding underground,” said IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari, referring to the alleged Hamas tunnels under Gaza.

Sinwar, 61, (23 of which were spent in Israeli prisons) is considered the architect of the unprecedented attack against southern Israeli on 7 October, during which 1,200 people were killed and 240 hostages taken.

Israel estimates that 138 hostages are still being held in Gaza, following the release of the others as part of a seven-day truce at the end of November. 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel were released in exchange.

Sinwar has not been seen publicly in Gaza since the October attack.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed in combat on Wednesday, according to the IDF.

The Israeli army also announced it had discovered near a clinic and school "an important weapons depot", which it claimed was further evidence of Hamas' use of "human shields".

Israel's human shields argument is strongly challenged by some, who claim it is used to deflect attention away from its own violent conduct, based on shaky evidence and still does not negate international obligations to protect civilian life during combat.

According to Palestinian authorities, 16,248 people - mostly women and children - have been killed since Israel began relentlessly bombing Gaza.

Israel has promised to "annihilate" Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007.

According to the UN, some 1.9 million people - around 85% of the besieged enclave's population - have been displaced by the war, with more than half of Gaza's homes destroyed or damaged by Israeli bombings.