Confirming ground push into southern Gaza, IDF chief vows ‘no less powerful’ campaign

Military spokesman says offensive expanded to ‘all areas’ of Strip; IAF carries out more than 10,000 strikes, eliminates Hamas battalion commander

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

Israeli military vehicles drive near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 3, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Israeli military vehicles drive near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 3, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Israel’s military confirmed that it had expanded its ground offensive into southern Gaza Sunday, promising to carry out its campaign with the same intensity as it has used in northern Gaza, where fighting has continued.

Speaking to troops at the Gaza Division in southern Israel, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said “yesterday, today, we killed [Hamas] battalion commanders, company commanders and many operatives. And yesterday morning we started the same move in the south of the Gaza Strip.”

“It will be no less powerful than [the operations in northern Gaza], the results will be no less [significant],” Halevi said. “The Hamas commanders will meet the IDF everywhere.”

“We have the capabilities to [operate] in the most thorough way, and just as we did it with strength and thoroughly in the north of the Gaza Strip, we are also doing it now in the south of the Gaza Strip,” he said.

He added that fighting in the north to “deepen achievements” was continuing.

In a press conference later Sunday, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the military was expanding the ground offensive to “all areas of the Gaza Strip.”

Halevi’s promise to not pull punches as troops move south could raise hackles in Washington, which has repeatedly urged Israel to do more to protect civilians in Gaza.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that in talks with Israeli leaders, he “underscored the imperative — for the United States — that the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in northern Gaza, not be repeated in the south.”

Israel Defense Forces troops operating in the Gaza Strip in a photo released for publication on December 3, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

The army’s confirmation of the move south came after unconfirmed reports Sunday of IDF ground forces operating in the southern Gaza Strip, for the first time since the ground offensive was launched in late October.

Footage posted to social media has purported to show Israeli tanks on the Salah a-Din road, Gaza’s main north-south highway, between Deir al Balah and Khan Younis.

The footage came as both the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups claimed to have clashed with IDF soldiers in areas northeast of Khan Younis on Sunday.

Israel has vowed to topple Hamas after the October 7 massacres, in which Palestinian terrorists stormed across the border from Gaza and slaughtered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 240 hostages.

During a seven-day truce — which lapsed on Friday after Hamas did not deliver a list of hostages it intended to release and began firing rockets an hour before the truce was due to expire — the terror group released 105 civilian hostages: 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and one Filipino. It is believed that 137 hostages remain in Gaza.

In return, Israel released 240 Palestinian security prisoners held for various terror charges, all women and minors. Additionally, some 200 trucks, including four tankers of fuel and four tankers of cooking gas, entered Gaza each day.

At least 72 IDF soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas says the Israeli military campaign has killed more than 15,500 people, mostly civilians. These numbers have not been independently verified and are believed to include combatants as well as Palestinian civilians killed by errant rockets launched by terror groups.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks to troops at the Gaza Division in southern Israel, December 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The army repeatedly urged civilians in north Gaza to move to the southern part of the Strip for safety, but the expansion of the ground offensive south could put them back in danger.

To help them find safety, the army has begun publishing a detailed map of where Palestinians in the Gaza Strip can go to avoid active combat zones, rather than demanding mass evacuations as it did in the northern part of Gaza.

The army said Sunday it had carried out 10,000 airstrikes in the Gaza Strip that were directed by ground forces during the offensive.

These airstrikes have been led by the Israeli Air Force’s so-called cooperation unit — also known as Cooperation Unit 5620 — which coordinates operations between the IAF and ground forces during maneuvers.

Speaking during an assessment earlier Sunday at the IAF’s headquarters, Halevi said that “a large part of our security in the maneuver is the very, very close and high-quality cooperation [of the ground forces] with the Air Force.”

“It made the maneuver much more effective,” Halevi added.

Israel Defense Forces troops operating in the Gaza Strip in a photo released for publication on December 3, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

Hagari announced that the commander of Hamas’s Shati battalion — which operates in the Gaza City refugee camp of the same name — was killed in an airstrike in the Strip earlier on Sunday.

He said the Hamas commander “led the fighting in the Shati area, and under his command, the plans to raid Israel during the October 7 massacre were carried out.”

“We are tracking around the clock to locate the senior Hamas leadership in the Strip. The goal is to eliminate each and every one of them,” Hagari said in response to a question.

This picture taken in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising after an Israeli strike on December 3, 2023. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Earlier Sunday, the IDF Arabic-language spokesman, Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, threatened Hamas’s Shejaiya battalion in a post on X.

“This is a final notice. You are all targets,” Adraee said, attaching a picture of the commanders of the Shejaiya battalion, which operates in the Gaza City neighborhood of the same name.

“You have two options: surrender and lay down your weapons, or face a fate similar to that of Wissam Farhat,” Adraee added, referring to the Shejaiya battalion commander, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike Saturday.

Airstrikes continued in the Gaza Strip throughout Sunday, with terrorists also firing rockets at border communities, causing damage in some of the attacks.

Communities close to the border with the Strip have been largely evacuated of civilians since October 7.

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