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50 rockets fired at south Israel, largest barrage in weeks; 2 more soldiers killed

IDF ground offensive toll rises to 190; military carries out targeted operations in northern Gaza, locates more than 100 rocket launchers, battles Hamas gunmen

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

The scene of a rocket impact in the southern city of Netivot, following a barrage fired from the Gaza Strip, January 16, 2024. (Fire and Rescue Services)
The scene of a rocket impact in the southern city of Netivot, following a barrage fired from the Gaza Strip, January 16, 2024. (Fire and Rescue Services)

More than 50 rockets were fired from Gaza toward the southern town of Netivot on Tuesday morning, with at least one impact inside the southern city in the largest rocket barrage from the Strip in several weeks.

The rocket barrage came as the Palestinians reported Israeli tanks storming back into parts of the northern Gaza Strip they had left last week.

The reports follow the IDF announcing that it had begun to transition into smaller, targeted operations in northern Gaza, after it said it had defeated Hamas’s “military framework” in the area. The IDF has withdrawn several units from the Strip, as part of its plans for a long war.

Local authorities in Netivot said more than 50 rockets were fired in the barrage, but other media reports suggested that only some 25 projectiles were launched.

In Netivot, a rocket caused damage to a storefront, while another rocket hit a warehouse in the adjacent community of Givolim, also causing damage.

Emergency services said there were no reports of injuries, though video from the Netivot area showed a rocket narrowly missing a group of people working in an open area near the southern city.

The barrage, which Hamas later claimed responsibility for, was launched from a location in central Gaza where IDF troops had withdrawn recently.

On Monday, the IDF began to withdraw the 36th Division from the central Gaza Strip, as part of its plans for a long war, which is expected to include smaller, targeted operations against Hamas, once its main fighting force is defeated.

The IDF’s 99th Division remains in other areas of central Gaza, where intense fighting is currently taking place between Israeli troops and Hamas’s operatives.

The rocket fire came shortly after the IDF announced that Sgt. First Class (res.) Nitzan Schessler was killed in fighting on Monday in the southern Gaza Strip.

Schessler, 21, from Hadera, was in the 55th Brigade’s 7155th Battalion.

Sgt. First Class (res.) Nitzan Schessler. (Israel Defense Forces)

The army said that another reservist from Schessler’s battalion was seriously injured during the same battle and that in a separate incident, a soldier in the Combat Engineering Corps’ 603rd Battalion was seriously hurt fighting in southern Gaza.

Additionally, the army announced the death of a soldier who succumbed to injuries sustained during fighting in Gaza in December, bringing the toll of slain troops in the ground offensive against Hamas to 190.

Sgt. Maj. (res.) Noam Ashram, 37, of the 179th Brigade’s 5352nd patrol company, from Kfar Saba was critically wounded on December 29 during a battle in central Gaza, during which an RPG was fired at troops.

Sgt. Maj. (res.) Noam Ashram. (Courtesy)

The most fierce fighting is now in the south and center of the enclave. Troops have been carrying out operations at a lower intensity in northern Gaza, after the military said it had defeated all of Hamas’s battalions in the area.

The military said Tuesday that IDF troops operating in northern Gaza’s Beit Lahiya located some 100 rocket launchers as clear-up operations continued in the northern part of the Strip. It added that troops battled and killed dozens of Hamas operatives in the area.

In the northern part of Gaza City’s Shati camp, the IDF said the 5th Reserve Infantry Brigade directed an attack helicopter and another aircraft against a group of Hamas gunmen, killing nine of them.

Massive explosions could be seen over northern areas of Gaza from across the border with Israel.

Meanwhile in southern Gaza, the IDF said the 7th Armored Brigade directed several aircraft to strike Hamas operatives in the Khan Younis area, and an attack helicopter to hit observation equipment used by the terror group.

Also in Khan Younis, the Paratroopers Brigade spotted a Hamas gunman in a building near them and killed him in a gun battle. The IDF said that a short while later, a second gunman was spotted in the same building and was killed by tank shelling.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in a handout image published January 16, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Amid the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s COGAT military liaison to the Palestinians said Monday that 227 trucks carrying aid were inspected and transferred to the Gaza Strip throughout the day, with 111 going through Egypt’s Rafah Crossing and 116 entering via Israel’s Kerem Shalom.

“There is no limit to the amount of humanitarian aid that can be transferred to the people of Gaza,” COGAT tweeted.

The World Food Program, UNICEF and the World Health Organization said that new entry routes needed to be opened to Gaza, more trucks needed to be allowed in each day, and aid workers and those seeking aid needed to be allowed to move around safely.

Moshe Tetro, an official with COGAT, said last week that aid delivery would be more streamlined if the UN provided more workers to receive and pack the supplies. Tetro said more trucks were needed to transfer the aid from Egypt to Israel for security checks and that the working hours at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza needed to be extended. Israel has additionally accused Hamas of stealing and stockpiling aid, keeping it from an increasingly desperate civilian population.

A Palestinian woman mourns relatives killed in an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip, in a morgue of the European Gaza Hospital in Khan Younis, Jan. 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

The UN says the war has displaced roughly 85 percent of Gaza’s population, many of whom have been forced to crowd into shelters and struggle to get food, water, fuel and medical care as temperatures fall.

“We were displaced with the people who fled, first to schools, then to Deir al-Balah,” Umm Jihad, who had returned to visit her home in central Gaza’s Al-Bureij, told AFP.

“There’s no life at all, there’s no house, and there’s nothing left,” she added. “It’s depressing and dismal, there is only debris — that’s Al-Bureij.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Monday reiterated calls for the fighting in Gaza to end, saying: “We need an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to ensure sufficient aid gets to where it is needed, to facilitate the release of the hostages, to tamp down the flames of wider war — because the longer the conflict in Gaza continues, the greater the risk of escalation and miscalculation.”

The IDF has assessed that fighting in Gaza will likely last throughout all of 2024, though at lower intensity than before, as Israel works to strip Hamas of its military and governing capabilities. The army is also preparing for the potential of fighting escalating further on the Lebanon border, where Hezbollah and allied Palestinian terror groups have carried out daily rocket, missile, and drone attacks, at the same time as the war in Gaza.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday that the “intensive phase” of Israel’s ground offensive in northern Gaza had ended, and would soon be over in the Khan Younis area of the Strip’s south as well.

Troops have been carrying out operations at a lower intensity in northern Gaza, after the military said it had defeated all of Hamas’s battalions in the area. The soldiers have been working to locate the remaining Hamas sites and kill or capture the terror group’s last operatives there.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks with Israeli soldiers at a staging area not far from the Israeli-Gaza border, October 19, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In northern Gaza, Gallant said, “All the [Hamas] battalion frameworks have been dismantled. We are now working to eliminate pockets of resistance. We will achieve this via raids, airstrikes, special operations and additional activities.”

In central Gaza, he said, “We are destroying Hamas’s military industry, its production centers. These are the places that produce rockets, IEDs, explosives and other weapons to be used against us. The achievements [of our troops] are very impressive.”

In southern Gaza, Gallant said “IDF troops are focused on the head of the snake, the Hamas leadership. As part of this action… the Khan Younis Brigade is gradually disintegrating as a fighting force.”

“We also cut off the roads that lead to Rafah above and below ground,” he said. The IDF has not yet operated on the ground in the Rafah area, on the Egyptian border, but has indicated it will eventually expand the offensive there.

While indicating the high-intensity fighting was nearing an end, Gallant said only continued military pressure on Hamas would bring about a new hostage deal.

“If the fire stops, the fate of the hostages will be sealed for many years in Hamas captivity. Without military pressure, no one will talk to us. Only from a position of strength can the hostages be freed,” he said.

He delivered his comments at a time when hostages’ families have been expressing growing frustration with the government, arguing that this policy has proven ineffective given that no hostages have been released in over a month. Israel resumed its ground offensive at the start of December after a seven-day truce that saw over 100 hostages released.

Israelis attend a rally marking 100 days since the hostages were kidnapped into Gaza, on January 13, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during the late November truce. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 25 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Monday that several days ago, the military notified the families of two hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip that it fears for their lives, based on new intelligence.

Hamas over the past day published videos showing hostages Itay Svirsky, Noa Argamani and Yossi Sharabi. The latest propaganda video, published Monday evening, raised concerns regarding Svirsky and Sharabi. Argamani is believed by the IDF to be alive.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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