A commander and two soldiers were killed fighting Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip, the military said Tuesday as Israel’s war against the terror group stretched into its 130th day with fresh truce talks on the horizon amid a looming push into the southern Gazan city of Rafah.
Monday’s deaths brought the number of soldiers killed in the nearly four-month ground offensive against Hamas to 232.
The three were named as:
- Lt. Col. (res.) Netanel Yaacov Elkouby, 36, the commander of the Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade’s 630th Battalion, from Haifa.
- Maj. (res.) Yair Cohen, 30, an acting company commander in the Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade’s 630th Battalion, from Ramat Gan.
- Sgt. First Class (res.) Ziv Chen, 27, of the Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade’s 630th Battalion, from Kfar Saba.
According to military sources, the three were killed when an explosive was detonated in a building they were in east of Khan Younis, where much of the fighting has been concentrated in recent weeks.
In a statement, the IDF added that another two soldiers of the 630th Battalion were seriously wounded in the same battle.
The fighting came as Israel prepared to send representatives to Cairo for the resumption of indirect truce talks aimed at pausing hostilities and reaching a deal for the release of over 130 hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, and with Israeli forces poised to expand their offensive into Rafah, where an influx of displaced Gazans has raised fears of a worsening humanitarian crisis.
The IDF said Tuesday troops killed at least 30 Hamas operatives in the western Khan Younis area over the last day, as soldiers “deepened” their “operational control” of the area.
Another approximately 10 Hamas operatives were killed in central Gaza, including a cell spotted while preparing to carry out an anti-tank missile attack.
The early morning saw rocket sirens sound in the largely evacuated Israeli village of Netiv Ha’asara near the Gaza border, an increasingly rare occurrence as the war has ground on.
There were no reports of casualties or damage from the attack.
The rising death toll was a bitter rejoinder to Monday’s rescue of two hostages in a daring special forces raid, a rare bright spot amid the tumult of war.
Fernando Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, both from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, were extracted early Monday from a heavily guarded apartment in southern Gaza’s Rafah under cover of massive airstrikes, which Hamas health authorities said killed more than 60 people.
Israel is still reeling from Hamas’s brutal onslaught on southern communities last year, which saw thousands of terrorists burst across the border, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping over 250 others, mostly civilians.
In response, Israel launched a wide-scale military operation aimed at destroying Hamas, which has left over 28,000 Palestinians dead, according to authorities in the Hamas-run strip. The figures cannot be independently verified, are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, and include those killed in rockets misfired by Palestinian terror groups.
The IDF says it has killed over 10,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.
The overnight bombardment brought devastation to Rafah, which is packed with some 1.4 million people, most of whom fled their homes elsewhere in Gaza to escape fighting.
Israel has described Rafah as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the territory and signaled that its ground offensive may soon target the town on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip.
It is believed that 130 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, and four hostages were released prior to that.
Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 29 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.
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.
The government has made freeing the hostages a top aim of its war, along with destroying Hamas’s military and governing capabilities. But as the fighting drags on, rifts have emerged in Israel over how to retrieve them.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says persistent military pressure will bring about the captives’ freedom even as families of the hostages and many of their supporters have called on the government to make another deal with Hamas.
Netanyahu has said sending ground troops into Rafah is essential to meeting Israel’s war goals. On Sunday, the White House said US President Joe Biden had warned Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation there without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.
Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu, were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation.
Discussion of the potential for a ceasefire agreement took up much of the call, a senior US administration official said. The official said that after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a halt to fighting.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain” but declined to give details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’s Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
On Monday, White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby stressed that the US “never said that they can’t go into Rafah to remove Hamas. Hamas remains a viable threat to the Israeli people. And the Israelis and the IDF, absolutely, are going to continue operations against their leadership and their infrastructure, as they should. We don’t want to see another October 7th.”
Rather, Kirby stressed, “What we’ve said is we don’t believe that it’s advisable to go in in a major way in Rafah without a proper, executable, effective, and credible plan for the safety of the more than a million Palestinians that are taking refuge in Rafah. They’ve left the north, and they certainly went south out of Khan Younis to try to get out of the fighting. So, Israel has an obligation to make sure that they can protect them.”
Agencies contributed to this report.