Five Israeli soldiers were injured late Thursday night in what appeared to be a mortar attack east of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. One of the soldiers was in serious condition overnight, according to the IDF spokesperson, and another’s injuries were classified as moderate; the rest were lightly injured. Later reports indicated that the troops were injured by a Hamas-placed explosive device.
Israeli Radio reported that the soldiers were preparing to blow up a major tunnel that was exposed two weeks ago when they came under fire from Hamas fighters. They were within 100 meters of the Kissufim checkpoint between Israel and the Strip, on the Gazan side, according to Walla News.
All five were evacuated via helicopter to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.
At least one member of Hamas’s armed wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, was killed, according to the terror group, when the IDF replied with tank fire. Some reports indicated that two Hamas men were killed, and that the Israelis also fired on the terrorists from IAF helicopters.
One unconfirmed report cited by Israel Radio said that Israeli ships targeted areas on Gaza’s Mediterranean seashore, as well. Several hours later, Palestinian sources claimed that IAF planes had again targeted areas east of Khan Younis.
Earlier Thursday, residents of Israeli communities along the Gaza border bade a reluctant farewell to IDF troops who were pulled out of guard duty there.
Soldiers will no longer man guard posts in 13 communities that abut the border, with security duties henceforth to fall on the residents themselves. Local residents said that the constant presence of soldiers had been reassuring with the Gaza Strip so close to their homes.
Community leaders had requested an urgent meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon but were yet to receive a response as of Thursday, Yedioth Ahronoth reported.
Alon Schuster, head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, reacted to the IDF withdrawal, saying its timing was “most unfortunate” in light of Thursday night’s events in Gaza. “The facts speak for themselves,” he added.
On Wednesday, dozens of local residents held a demonstration in the Netiv Ha’asarah community against the pullout, which the IDF’s Operations Directorate decided on in September.
Communities near the border with Gaza have sustained frequent rocket and mortar attacks over the past decade. Those attacks have diminished significantly since Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, a 8-day military offensive that sought to curb rocket fire from the Strip last November.
The tunnel linking Gaza and Israel, which the IDF was preparing to destroy on Thursday, was likely intended to facilitate a terror attack or kidnapping attempts inside Israel.
The tunnel, which an official said was particularly wide and about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) long, started in Abbasan al-Saghira, a farming village near Khan Younis, and terminated inside Israel, about three kilometers from Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, in the western Negev.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.