2 troops seriously hurt in failed Gaza hostage rescue; Gallant: signs Hamas is breaking

Rockets target southern Israel, Tel Aviv; army says it has designated 150 safe centers for civilians in Gaza, in addition to al-Mawasi safe zone; ground op death toll rises to 93

This handout photo from the Israel Defense Forces on December 8, 2023, shows Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. (Israel Defense Forces)
This handout photo from the Israel Defense Forces on December 8, 2023, shows Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. (Israel Defense Forces)

Two Israel Defense Forces soldiers were seriously wounded in a failed attempt to rescue hostages held by the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip overnight, the army said Friday, adding that several of the hostage takers were killed.

The rescue attempt comes as the military increased its push into Hamas strongholds across the Strip amid what it said were signs the terror group’s defenses were cracking.

“The troops raided a Hamas site, killed terrorists who took part in the abduction and holding of the hostages,” said IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, speaking to the press.

He gave no further details on the raid, only saying that ultimately it had failed and no hostages were rescued.

“We will continue to act in a number of ways, operationally and with intelligence, with the Shin Bet, to bring all the hostages back home, and to obtain information on them,” Hagari said.

Soroka Hospital in Beersheba said the two soldiers were in serious condition and being treated in the intensive care unit.

The military said it was continuously briefing the families of the hostages, whenever it received verifiable information on their situation. The army also warned against repeated Hamas attempts at psychological warfare regarding the fate of the hostages and called on the public not to spread rumors.

This is the second known attempt by the military to free hostages. On October 30, Pvt. Ori Megidish was rescued.

People take part in a protest calling for the release of Bibas family, 10 month old Kfir, 4-year-old Ariel, and their parents Shiri and Yarden Bibas, from Hamas captivity at ‘Hostage Square’ in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A further 105 civilian hostages were released from Hamas captivity in Gaza during a weeklong truce: 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and one Filipino. In exchange, Israel released 240 Palestinian security prisoners, all women and minors.

Earlier, four hostages were released and 2 bodies were recovered. It is believed that 138 hostages remain in Gaza, although the IDF has confirmed that several of them were killed, either before or after being abducted.

Following the breakdown of the truce, the IDF resumed its ground offensive in Gaza, continuing to tighten its hold on northern Gaza cities but also pushing into Khan Younis in southern Gaza with recent days seeing some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

Speaking to troops near the Gaza border, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said there were increasing “signs that indicate [Hamas] is beginning to break in Gaza.”

His remarks were made during Hanukkah candle lighting with troops of the Border Defense Corps’ Caracal Battalion — a mixed-gender light infantry unit — and Armored Corps on the Gaza Border, and Gallant praised the role of female soldiers so far in the war.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, center, lights Hanukkah candles with troops on the Gaza border, December 8, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“It is impossible to ignore the strong, prominent and successful female presence [in the war]. Women have not really fought in the IDF since 1948. This is the first time this has happened, after 75 years, in massive fighting,” he said to the troops. “The results are very impressive.”

“I see the signs that indicate [Hamas] is beginning to break in Gaza. You all play a key role in this matter,” he added.

Hagari also said the military is seeing more Hamas operatives surrendering to forces during the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

“Our troops are operating in the heart of Hamas’s strongholds in south and northern Gaza simultaneously, in Jabaliya, Shejaiya, and in the Khan Younis area,” he said

“We are engaged in fierce battles with Hamas terrorists, who hide underground. We are killing many terrorists, and seeing more and more terrorists surrendering in battle, and turning themselves into our forces,” Hagari said, adding that in the last 48 hours, the IDF had arrested more than 200 suspects in the Gaza Strip.

“Dozens of them have been handed over for interrogation by the Military Intelligence Directorate’s Unit 504 and Shin Bet in Israel, including Hamas commanders and Nukhba operatives,” Hagari said.

Israeli forces have encircled Gaza’s major urban centers as they seek to destroy Hamas over its unprecedented attack on October 7, when terrorists broke through Gaza’s border to kill around 1,200 people, mostly civilians butchered in their homes and at a music festival, and seize some 240 hostages.

Troops of the LOTAR Unit battle Hamas operatives in a school in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, in a video published by the IDF on December 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military gave details of the battles, saying that it had carried out strikes on more than 450 targets in the Gaza Strip over the past day, including military compounds, observation posts and weapons depots.

The army said that the 98th Division continues to advance in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, which it said is a “main Hamas stronghold,” killing dozens of operatives and destroying tunnels in the process.

The IDF said the 7th Armored Brigade has launched an assault to break Hamas’s lines of defense in southern Gaza, striking dozens of anti-tank missile launch sites and observation posts. It said the forces raided a main outpost belonging to Hamas’s Deir al-Balah battalion, capturing weapons and intelligence materials.

Troops of the Givati Infantry Brigade, 55th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade, and Kiryati Reserve Armored Brigade were surrounding Khan Younis and carrying out “targeted raids” against Hamas sites.

The IDF said that in one of the raids, the troops found Hamas weapons in a school, including rocket launchers, mortar launchers, explosives devices and other equipment.

The Kiryati Brigade troops also captured a Hamas command center inside a mosque, where a number of operatives were holed up, according to the IDF. It said the cell was killed, as was another group of Hamas gunmen that attempted to flee into a tunnel in the area.

The Commando Brigade also carried out raids against what the IDF calls Hamas “centers of gravity” in Khan Younis, including the homes of Hamas operatives. Inside the homes, troops found weaponry and intelligence materials, it said.

The IDF also released dramatic footage of troops of the elite LOTAR Unit battling Hamas operatives in a school in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood.

According to the IDF, troops of the 188th Armored Brigade’s 74th Battalion, along with the LOTAR soldiers, encountered a Hamas cell as they searched the school building.

“The terrorists tried to draw the forces into an ambush, with gunfire and explosives, and were eliminated by the troops of the LOTAR Unit and tank fire of the 74th Battalion,” the IDF said.

The IDF says the troops later searched the school and found a tunnel shaft inside one of the classrooms. It says the tunnel, used by the Hamas operatives, led to a nearby mosque.

IDF soldiers Naftali Yonah Gordon (L) and Omri Rot, who were both killed fighting in Gaza on December 8, 2023. (Courtesy)

The IDF also announced the deaths of two reserves soldiers killed Thursday while fighting in Gaza, raising the military death toll of the ground offensive against Hamas since late October to 93. They were Sgt. Maj. (res.) Kobi Dvash, 41, of the Combat Engineering Corps’ 271st Battalion, from Tiberias; and Master Sgt. (res.) Eyal Meir Berkowitz, 28, of the 551st Brigade’s 699th Battalion, from Jerusalem.

Dvash was killed in southern Gaza, while Berkowitz was killed in the Strip’s north. In addition, an officer from the Oketz canine special forces unit was seriously wounded during fighting in northern Gaza.

Despite the fighting, Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel.

Hamas said shortly after noon it had fired rockets at Tel Aviv. No sirens sounded in the central city, although residents report hearing large blasts, as the projectiles apparently landed in the sea. Around 2:30 p.m. it fired another salvo, this time triggering sirens as Iron Dome intercepted the incoming projectiles. Shrapnel from a rocket fell on a parked vehicle in the coastal city. There were no reports of injuries.

A car damaged by rocket shrapnel in Tel Aviv on December 8, 2023. (Courtesy)

Palestinians reported dozens of casualties in the fighting.

Israeli troops have been battling Hamas fighters inside the southern city of Khan Younis, while strikes have continued to pound nearby Deir al-Balah. A strike Friday on a residential building in Zawaida, outside Deir al-Balah, killed at least 20 people from families sheltering there, according to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital.

The casualties could not be confirmed. The military says it makes every effort to spare civilians and accuses Hamas of using them as human shields as the militants fight in dense residential areas.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said the total death toll stood at over 17,000, mostly women and minors. The figures and their breakdown cannot be verified, but the total number is largely in line with an assessment by Israel, which said it believes more than 5,000 of those killed are Hamas operatives.

As the fighting intensified, so too did the warnings from international aid groups about the humanitarian situation inside Gaza.

The UN says about 80 percent of the population has been displaced and is facing dire shortages of food, fuel, water and medicine, along with the growing threat of disease.

On Friday, Hamas pointed the finger in part at UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, accusing it of “humiliating” the population by not distributing flour in some areas, or too slowly in others.

Palestinians search through the rubble after an Israeli strike in Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, early Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

“We have noticed a deliberate slowdown by UNRWA as if it does not want to put an end to the flour distribution crisis,” the terror group said.

The UN has also said that Palestinians are running out of safe places to shelter.

Tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting have packed into Rafah, in the far south of the Gaza Strip, and al-Mawasi, a nearby patch of barren coastline. Israel has designated al-Mawasi as a safe zone. But the UN and relief agencies have called that a poorly planned solution.

“We do not have a humanitarian operation in southern Gaza that can be called by that name anymore,” the UN’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, said Thursday. The pace of Israel’s military assault has left no place safe in the south, where the UN had planned to aid civilians. “That plan is in tatters,” he said.

However, Israeli authorities have identified roughly 150 shelters in Gaza that it says will not be targeted by the IDF during its ongoing operations in Gaza, Col. Elad Goren, from Israel’s COGAT military liaison to the Palestinians told The Times of Israel.

These shelters are in addition to the al-Mawasi area, which Goren says has not been targeted by the IDF, even after terror groups fired rockets from within the 20-square-kilometer coastal safe zone.

The shelters are schools and other public infrastructure, whose coordinates have been passed along by the UN to Israel through the IDF’s recently beefed up deconfliction mechanism, Goren said.

Palestinians flee the Israeli ground offensive in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman, File)

The senior COGAT official says that the 150 buildings will remain safe for civilians pending changes in the IDF’s operations.

US officials have said in recent days that while Israel has expanded some of the safe zones, some Palestinians are still being targeted after fleeing to them.

Meanwhile, Yotam Shefer, the head of COGAT’s foreign relations department, told The Times of Israel that Jerusalem continues to encourage countries abroad and humanitarian organizations to set up field hospitals and floating hospitals in and around Gaza to treat the thousands of Palestinians wounded in the Israel-Hamas war.

Shefer said two field hospitals are currently operating in Gaza — one by the Jordanian government and another by the Emirati government.

Staff from the US-based International Medical Corps is en route to Gaza to set up a third field hospital there and COGAT is also in talks with the Red Cross and several other organizations about following suit, Shefer says.

Two hospital ships docked in the past two weeks off of the Egypt’s El Arish coast — one sent by France that arrived last week and one sent by Italy that arrived this week.

“We also facilitated the entrance of medical teams and medical supplies from various other organizations and countries,” the official from Israel’s COGAT military liaison to the Palestinians said.

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