40 Hamas members killed in combat deep in Khan Younis - IDF

Gaza blast and fighting kills nine troops as IDF expands ground push southward

IDF probes unintended detonation of tunnel demolition explosives that killed 6 combat engineer reservists; reporters were being shown Hamas rocket factory nearby; IDF Gaza toll: 185

L-R: Top: Cpt. (res.) Ron Efrimi, Master Sgt. (res.) Roi Avraham Maimon, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Akiva Yasinskiy; middle: Sgt. First Class (res.) Yakir Hexter, Sgt. First Class (res.) David Schwartz, Cpt. (res.) Denis Krokhmalov Veksler; bottom: Master Sgt. (res.) Amit Shahar, Sgt. Roi Tal, Sgt. First Class (res.) Gavriel Bloom, all killed in Gaza on January 8, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
L-R: Top: Cpt. (res.) Ron Efrimi, Master Sgt. (res.) Roi Avraham Maimon, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Akiva Yasinskiy; middle: Sgt. First Class (res.) Yakir Hexter, Sgt. First Class (res.) David Schwartz, Cpt. (res.) Denis Krokhmalov Veksler; bottom: Master Sgt. (res.) Amit Shahar, Sgt. Roi Tal, Sgt. First Class (res.) Gavriel Bloom, all killed in Gaza on January 8, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Six troops were killed in an explosion in central Gaza and three others died during intense battles in the south of the Strip, Israel’s army announced Tuesday, as heavy fighting persisted a day after military leaders indicated that combat was shifting into lower gear after over three months of war.

The deadly setbacks came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region to discuss Israel’s transition to a new phase in the punishing conflict, with the Israel Defense Forces largely in control of northern Gaza, but continuing to face resistance during pushes into central Gaza and the metropolis of Khan Younis in the south of the Strip, where the army said it was expanding operations.

The deaths, which occurred Monday, raised the toll in Israel’s offensive to 185 since troops invaded the Strip in late October on a campaign to eliminate the Strip’s Hamas rulers and free hostages kidnapped during the terror group’s October 7 onslaught.

The army said the six reservists, all combat engineers, were killed when explosives intended for demolishing a tunnel detonated during activity in central Gaza’s al-Bureij refugee camp.

The explosion, which is being investigated by the IDF, occurred close to where officers were leading reporters on a tour of a Hamas rocket manufacturing plant.

The Times of Israel’s reporter heard and saw a large blast rip through the air, and captured the moment in the photo below.

A large explosion is seen in central Gaza’s Bureij, which killed six IDF combat engineers, January 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

As the IDF began to escort the reporters out of the Strip, medical dispatches were heard over the radio, with commanders declaring a mass casualty incident.

The six fatalities were named as Sgt. First Class (res.) Gavriel Bloom, a 27-year-old reservist from Beit Shemesh; Master Sgt. (res.) Amit Moshe Shahar, 25, from Ramat Yohanan; Cpt. (res.) Denis Krokhmalov Veksler, 32, from Beersheba; Cpt. (res.) Ron Efrimi, 26, from Hod Hasharon; Master Sgt. (res.) Roi Avraham Maimon, 24, a paramedic from Afula, and Sgt. Maj. (res.) Akiva Yasinskiy, 35, from Ramat Gan.

Several others were injured, some seriously, in the explosion.

IDF troops operate in Gaza in a handout image cleared for publication on January 9, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Among those hurt in the incident was entertainer Idan Amedi, a popular singer and actor on the hit TV show “Fauda,” who was airlifted to a hospital Monday and was not in life-threatening danger, his father said.

In Khan Younis, Sgt. First Class (res.) David Schwartz, 26, and Sgt. First Class (res.) Yakir Hexter, 26, were killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack, the IDF said. The two combat engineers, part of a paratrooper force, were from Elazar in the West Bank and Jerusalem respectively.

Another soldier was seriously wounded in the attack.

Combat engineering forces are tasked with some of the most dangerous work as part of the IDF’s ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, scanning Hamas’s tunnel networks and destroying them, along with other sites, with explosives.

Elsewhere in southern Gaza, Sgt. Roi Tal, a 19-year-old infantryman from Kfar Yehoshua, was killed during a battle with Hamas operatives.

A smoke plume erupts over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza strip on January 8, 2024. (AFP)

The IDF said Tuesday it was expanding ground operations in Khan Younis and fighting Hamas deep within the southern Gaza city. Some 40 Hamas operatives were killed over the previous day, the army said, and troops uncovered “a wide range” of weapons and “significant” tunnel shafts.

Palestinians reported airstrikes on multiple areas in and around the city.

It said an airstrike targeted a Hamas cell in Maghazi, another camp in central Gaza, and naval strikes were directed at targets along the coast.

In Nuseirat, an urban refugee camp bordering Bureij, Gazans reported hearing artillery shelling and gunfire echoing through the night and into Tuesday morning, as troops pushed in from the north.

They were facing heavy resistance from gunmen in the camp, said one resident.

IDF soldiers are seen in central Gaza’s Bureij, January 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Israel launched its offensive after thousands of Hamas terrorists stormed into southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 240 victims hostage, over half of whom remain in captivity in Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says over 23,000 people have been killed in the fighting, though these figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 8,500 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

On Monday, IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari told The New York Times that the Israel Defense Forces had begun a new, less intensive phase in the war against Hamas, with fewer ground troops and airstrikes, confirming similar comments from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to the Wall Street Journal.

The announcement coincided with a visit by Blinken, who has pushed for Israel to move away from the high-powered strikes that characterized the first three months of the war, leveling wide swaths of northern Gaza.

The top diplomat was set to meet with Israel’s war cabinet after sitting down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A senior US official told CNN on Tuesday that Blinken expected to focus on Israel’s plan to shift to the lower intensity phase of fighting.

The official added that Blinken and his team will push Israel’s war leadership for an “imminent” transition to the next phase, which would see a reduction in the intensity of fighting and a possible return of Gazans to their homes in the northern part of the Strip.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) looks on as Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks ahead of their meeting in Tel Aviv on January 9, 2024. (ABIR SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

Israel also expects Blinken to focus on the “day after” — who will rule Gaza, who will be responsible for security, who will handle civil matters and where will funds come from.

At a meeting with Blinken on Tuesday morning, President Isaac Herzog underscored that Israel is doing its “utmost under extremely complicated circumstances on the ground, to make sure that there are no unintended consequences and no civilian casualties.”

Standing next to Herzog, Blinken spoke about Washington’s “relentless efforts” to bring the remaining hostages home from Hamas captivity.

Talks for the release of the hostages were bogged down in recent weeks and became seemingly complicated by the assassination of senior Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri in Lebanon last week in a strike widely attributed to Israel.

A report in the Al-Araby Al-Jadid newspaper Tuesday, citing an Egyptian source, claimed that a high-level Israeli delegation had arrived in Cairo on the night before for talks on releasing hostages held by Hamas, indicating that indirect talks were back on track.

Palestinians inspect the damage of a destroyed house following Israeli airstrikes on Khan Younis, Southern Gaza Strip, January 7, 2024. (Mohammed Dahman/AP)

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 a weeklong truce in late November. 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 Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 25 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Israel has vowed to continue fighting until Hamas is completely dismantled and no longer a threat, and its hostages are returned, with most Israelis opposed to a US-imposed pullback, according to recent polling.

Relatives of hostages attempted to reach the Keren Shalom crossing into Gaza Tuesday morning in a bid to block aid from reaching the Strip in protest of the failure to secure access to the hostages, but were blocked by police and military officers.

Relatives and friends of hostages held in the Gaza Strip gather on the road next to Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza, in southern Israel, January 9, 2024. (AP/Leo Correa)

“It’s time to stop this joke. They’ll return in 136 coffins,” said Ayala Metzger, a relative of elderly hostages Yoram and Tami Metzger who took part in the aborted protest.

Facing questions over his comments to the Wall Street Journal on the tactical shift, which apparently caught some fellow Likud lawmakers off-guard, Gallant indicated Monday that they were not intended for domestic consumption by lay people but “terminology meant for military and diplomatic coordination.”

He drew fire by reportedly characterizing the lay public as “some woman from Sderot or Ofakim,” two southern cities hard hit on October 7.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: