On the eve of the three-month mark of the Israel-Hamas war, the Israel Defense Forces said Saturday evening it had completed the dismantlement of Hamas’s “military framework” in the northern Gaza Strip.
Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a press conference that the military was now focused on dismantling Hamas in central and southern Gaza.
Saturday also saw the IDF and Shin Bet say that the commander of Hamas’s Nuseirat battalion in central Gaza, Ismail Siraj, and his deputy, Ahmed Wahaba, were killed in an airstrike in the Strip. The battalion was responsible for the attacks on Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7 and the massacres that took place there and in other border communities.
The IDF also announced the death of an officer killed during fighting in the northern Gaza Strip over the weekend, bringing the toll of slain troops since the start of the ground offensive against Hamas to 176.
He was named as Lt. Col. Roee Yohay Yosef Mordechay, 31, a commander at the Nahal Brigade’s training base, from Tel Aviv. Mordechay had been tapped to be the next commander of Nahal’s 50th Battalion before he was killed.
Another soldier of the Nahal Brigade’s 931st Battalion was seriously wounded in the same battle, the IDF said.
Terror infrastructure dismantled
At his press conference, Hagari said that battles and sporadic rocket fire could still occur in northern Gaza, but the terror group’s infrastructure was out of action and could no longer carry out large-scale attacks.
He noted that towns in central Gaza were “dense and full of terrorists,” while Khan Younis in the south has an “underground city of branching tunnels.”
“There are no shortcuts when it comes to fighting terror,” Hagari said. “We attacked, and will continue to attack, and continue to deepen the achievement in these areas, but it takes time,” Hagari said.
“It will take time. The fighting will continue throughout 2024. We are working according to a plan to achieve the goals of the war: to dismantle Hamas in the center and south, and continue all efforts, intelligence and operational, and military pressure, to return the hostages,” Hagari said.
He said at the same time the IDF was building new defenses along the Gaza border to allow residents displaced since October 7 to return to their homes.
Hagari also revealed a photo of Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing. The photo was among some 70 million digital files recovered by the IDF in Gaza, he said.
Deif is seen in the photo holding a plastic cup in one hand and dollar bills in another, apparently confirming newly reported IDF intelligence findings that disproved the long-held belief that he is an amputee and nearly paralyzed.
In announcing the killing of Siraj and Wahaba in Nuseirat, the army and Shin Bet said Siraj previously served as a commander of a company in Hamas’s Nukhba commando force, and was also involved in manufacturing rockets. Wahaba, the deputy, was appointed to the role after the previous Nuseirat battalion deputy commander was killed by the IDF in the first weeks of the war.
Beyond the October 7 massacres, the IDF said the Nuseirat battalion had also been involved in firing anti-tank missiles and operating drones against troops operating in Gaza in recent months.
צה"ל ושב"כ חיסלו בתקיפה אווירית את מפקד גדוד נוציראת של ארגון הטרור חמאס ואת סגנו.
אסמעיל סראג', מפקד גדוד נוציראת וסגנו, אחמד והבה, חוסלו הלילה בתקיפה של חיל האוויר, בהובלת פיקוד הדרום ובהכוונה של אגף המודיעין ושב"כ>> pic.twitter.com/zC1XlWG6Ge
— צבא ההגנה לישראל (@idfonline) January 6, 2024
IDF chief in Khan Younis tunnels
Earlier Saturday, the military published footage of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and the head of the Shin Bet security agency Ronen Bar touring a Hamas tunnel network under southern Gaza’s Khan Younis the previous day.
Halevi and Bar were joined by the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman; the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva; and the commander of the 98th Division, Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus.
The military believes Hamas’s leadership, including Yahya Sinwar, are hiding underground in the southern Gaza Strip.
The army also released new footage of the elite Egoz commando unit operating in southern Gaza, where it said troops raided the home of Hamas’s east Khan Younis battalion commander in the town of Bani Suheila and battled gunmen in a school.
The IDF said troops killed three gunmen during a battle in the school. On their bodies, it said, forces found RPGs and significant intelligence about Hamas’s Khan Younis brigade.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and the head of the Shin Bet security agency Ronen Bar toured a Hamas tunnel network under southern Gaza's Khan Younis yesterday, the military announces.
Halevi and Bar were joined by the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron… pic.twitter.com/AGSTPTxjun
— Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian (@manniefabian) January 6, 2024
In a residence in the area, Egoz soldiers found a cache of weapons used by Hamas operatives, the IDF said.
The IDF releases new footage of the elite Egoz commando unit operating in southern Gaza, where it says troops raided the home of Hamas’s east Khan Younis battalion commander and battled gunmen in a school.
In the town of Bani Suheila on the outskirts of Khan Younis, Egoz troops… pic.twitter.com/C4wYZFLAqu
— Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian (@manniefabian) January 6, 2024
Some of the weapons were found inside a bedroom, the IDF said, alongside a child’s puzzle of an inciteful image against Israel.
The army also said troops found military equipment belonging to Nukhba forces in a clinic in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, stashed inside bags marked with the logo of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA. As one of the main organizations providing aid to the Gaza Strip, there have been previous reports of the aid agency’s packaging apparently being repurposed by the terror group.
The IDF said RPGs, Kalashnikov-type weapons and ammunition were found in a nearby building.
In addition, the military said strikes were carried out on a number of terror cells and destroyed a number of tunnel shafts in the Khan Younis area.
Furthermore, troops located a warehouse containing dozens of Kalashnikovs, over a hundred cartridges, remote-activated charges and a number of RPGs. Forces destroyed the warehouse.
הלוחמים איתרו בתוך מרפאה שקים של אונר"א בהם ארגון הטרור חמאס החביא וסטים צבאיים של פעילי נוח'בה. במבנה סמוך אותרו מטולי RPG, נשקים מסוג קלאצ'ניקוב ותחמושת.
בחאן יונס, לוחמי צה"ל חיסלו מחבלים רבים מהאוויר ומהקרקע והשמידו מספר פירי מנהרות>> pic.twitter.com/b2zr9nspPO
— צבא ההגנה לישראל (@idfonline) January 6, 2024
Last week, it was reported Israel is hoping to push UNRWA out of the Gaza Strip after the war. The outlet cited a high-level and classified Foreign Ministry report that recommends a number of stages to the move, including a comprehensive report on alleged UNRWA cooperation between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the UN body that provides welfare and humanitarian services in the Strip.
Gaza ‘uninhabitable’ as war rages on
The UN warned Saturday that Gaza has been rendered “uninhabitable” by three months of war.
Top Western diplomats were in the region as part of a fresh push to boost the flow of aid into the Strip and address mounting fears of a wider conflict. With swaths of the territory reduced to rubble amid the fighting, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said “Gaza has simply become uninhabitable.”
The war began with Hamas’s unprecedented attack which resulted in the deaths of some 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians, and with around 240 others taken hostage, of which 132 remain in captivity after a temporary truce that saw the release of 105. At least 24 still in Gaza are believed to have been killed.
In response, Israel launched a war on Hamas with the stated intention of eliminating Hamas and releasing the hostages.
The ensuing relentless bombardment and ground invasion has killed at least 22,722 in the Strip, Hamas has said. The figure cannot be verified, doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants and includes Palestinians killed by errant rocket fire from within Gaza. Israel says it has killed 8,500 terrorists since the start of the war.
Israel says it is making an effort to avoid harm to civilians while fighting a terror group embedded within the civilian population. It has long accused Gaza-based terror groups of using Palestinians in the Strip as human shields, operating from sites, including schools and hospitals, which are supposed to be protected.
In a statement on Saturday, the Hamas health ministry said it had recorded more than 120 deaths over the past 24 hours. Victims of bombardment were brought to the European Hospital in the southern city of Khan Yunis, where relatives and mourners gathered.
One of them, Mohamed Awad, wept over the body of a 12-year-old boy and counted the deaths in his family.
“My brother, his wife, his children, his relatives and the brothers of his wife — there are more than 20 martyrs,” Awad, a journalist, told AFP.
Another Palestinian journalist, Akram El-Shafei, died at the hospital from wounds sustained in Gaza City in November, making him “the 117th journalist… killed by the Israeli occupation during this crazy war,” Asser Yassin of the Palestinian Media Forum said.
Yassin charged that Israel “targets journalists” but that “only increases our determination to… convey the suffering and pain” to the world.
Israeli officials have repeatedly denied that the army deliberately targets those working for the media.
Shafei’s condition had initially improved, said relative Magda El-Shafei, but he “needed treatment” and there was “nothing” available. “He’s gone,” she told AFP.
The World Health Organization says the majority of Gaza’s 36 hospitals have been put out of action by the fighting, while remaining medical facilities face dire shortages. Israel says Hamas has regularly operated out of hospitals and has conducted operations inside several of them that, it said, had served as bases for terrorists.
As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held his fourth crisis tour to the region since the start of the war three months ago, the leader of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh said Washington should focus on the “mistakes” it made by “blindly supporting” Israel.
“We hope that Mr. Blinken learned lessons from the past three months and realized the extent of the mistakes the US has made by blindly supporting the Zionist occupation and believing its lies, which resulted in unprecedented massacres and war crimes against our people in Gaza,” he said in a speech.