ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Army eases restrictions on Gaza border towns

Defense minister vows IDF will push south to Rafah as Khan Younis offensive wraps up

Gallant tells troops operations are aiding cause of freeing hostages; IDF battles gunmen across enclave, strikes rocket launchers

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

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) speaks to troops of the 98th Division in southern Gaza's Khan Younis, February 1, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) speaks to troops of the 98th Division in southern Gaza's Khan Younis, February 1, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed Thursday that the Israeli military will reach and dismantle Hamas’s Rafah Brigade, just as it is currently working to do to its battalions in the Khan Younis area of southern Gaza.

Gallant stated that ongoing operations have severely weakened the terror group’s ability to wage war and that the pressure will force it to agree to release hostages it kidnapped during their October 7 attack on Israel.

“Hamas’s Khan Younis Brigade boasted that it would stand against the IDF, now it’s falling apart, and I am telling you here, we are completing the mission in Khan Younis and we will also reach Rafah and eliminate everyone there who is a terrorist who is trying to harm us,” Gallant told troops of the IDF’s 98th Division during his visit to Khan Younis Wednesday.

He said the IDF’s operations in Khan Younis were “progressing with impressive results,” and that it was “much more difficult for Hamas.”

“They don’t have weapons, they don’t have ammunition, they don’t have the ability to treat the wounded, they have 10,000 dead terrorists [throughout Gaza] and another 10,000 wounded who are not functioning,” Gallant stated.

“It’s a blow that is eroding their ability [to fight],” he said.

This handout picture released on February 1, 2024, shows Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces/AFP)

Gallant told the troops that their actions, both above ground and underground in Khan Younis, “bring the return of the hostages closer, because Hamas only understands strength.”

International mediators are making efforts to reach a deal between Israel and Hamas that would see at least some of the 136 hostages held in Gaza returned in exchange for a weeks-long truce and the release of Palestinian security prisoners. If an agreement is reached, it would be the first time captives are released since a week-long truce in November, when 105 captives were freed from captivity.

As Hamas’s ability to fire projectiles into Israel has been substantially weakened, the IDF Home Front Command on Thursday eased restrictions in most communities near the Gaza Strip border for the first time since the war began on October 7.

From Wednesday evening, gatherings of up to 100 people outdoors and 300 people indoors will be permitted in most communities within seven kilometers of the Strip, though 10 communities closest to the Strip are excluded.

Schools will be allowed to operate provided they have an adequate bomb shelter.

The IDF said the new policy is aimed at finding a “balance between saving lives and maintaining routine in an emergency setting.”

In 10 communities — Nirim, Kerem Shalom, Nir Oz, Kissufim, Ein Hashlosha, Sufa, Holit, Netiv Haasara, Kfar Aza and Nahal Oz — stricter instructions will remain, including capping outdoor gatherings at 50 participants and indoor ones at 100 people.

Troops battle terror operatives throughout Strip

During fighting in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, forces of the 98th Division spotted a long-range rocket launcher Thursday and directed a fighter jet to strike it, the IDF said.

The IDF said the division’s Paratroopers Brigade, meanwhile, killed several gunmen during a number of close-quarters encounters over the past day.

The Paratroopers Brigade and the 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade both directed airstrikes on other Hamas operatives in Khan Younis, the IDF said.

Meanwhile, the 162nd Division continued operations against Hamas in northern and central Gaza.

The IDF said the division’s forces — the 401st Armored Brigade in northern Gaza and Nahal Infantry Brigade in central Gaza — have killed dozens of Hamas operatives over the past day and raided the terror group’s sites.

The IDF also said it has withdrawn the 55th Brigade from the Gaza Strip, replacing it with other forces in the Khan Younis area. Troops of the reserve paratroopers brigade operated in Khan Younis in recent weeks, killing numerous Hamas gunmen and locating and demolishing some 70 tunnel shafts, the military said.

The IDF shared footage from a battle in December between the brigade’s troops and Hamas gunmen in the Khan Younis area, during which a soldier, Sgt. Major (res.) Gideon Ilani, was killed.

The IDF has been withdrawing much of its reservist forces from the Strip in recent weeks, leaving the standing army to mostly continue the fight against Hamas.

Military officials say the IDF aims to release reservists to help bounce back Israel’s economy and give them a break before they are likely called up again, as the fighting in Gaza is expected to last all year, and there remain fears of an escalation in the country’s north amid daily attacks by Hezbollah.

The chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, held an assessment in the northern Gaza Strip Wednesday, telling troops that the army will continue to battle Hamas in the area, despite having focused on other parts of the enclave recently.

“Our ability to operate here, in the heart of Gaza City again, after we left to strike in other areas, our ability to return here and operate powerfully against the key targets, while striking many dozens of terrorists in recent days, is an important ability, and we will continue to do so,” Finkelman said.

The IDF has said it largely dismantled Hamas’s fighting force in northern Gaza and is now carrying out smaller raids against the terror group’s remaining operatives and infrastructure.

Chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman (right) and Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, the commander of the 162nd Division, in northern Gaza, February 1, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

War erupted between Israel and Hamas with the terror group’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages — mostly civilians.

Vowing to destroy the terror group, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that close to 27,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and is 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 some 10,000 Hamas terrorists in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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