Gallant vows war won't end without eliminating Hamas

Gaza airstrike takes out senior Hamas recruiter as IDF raises troop death toll to 246

Sgt. Maj. (res.) Dennis Yekimov, 33, killed in Khan Younis Saturday; military wraps up 2-week operation to retake previously conquered Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City

Troops of the 401st Armored Brigade operate in Gaza City's Zeitoun, in a handout image published by the IDF on March 3, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Troops of the 401st Armored Brigade operate in Gaza City's Zeitoun, in a handout image published by the IDF on March 3, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday announced the death of a soldier killed during fighting in the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis the day before, the latest loss for an infantry brigade rotated into Gaza late last week.

The death of Sgt. Maj. (res.) Dennis Yekimov, 33, Yekimov’s death brought the number of slain troops in the ground offensive against Hamas to 246, as fierce fighting continued to rage in several parts of the Strip, even as the army said it had ended a two-week operation to re-clear a previously captured Gaza City neighborhood.

Yekimov, from Beersheba, was part of the Bislamach Brigade, which lost three soldiers in Khan Younis on Saturday when they entered a booby-trapped building in the city. Another 14 soldiers were injured, six of them seriously, in the blast.

Yekimov, who was buried Sunday, was mourned by his young daughter who called him “the best dad in the world.”

Yekimov’s brother Igor promised the family would “protect your little daughter like you protected us.”

“Words can’t describe what you were for us. You were killed defending the homeland. Like a real hero. You were a role model. We will always take care of your girl,” he said at the funeral.

Sgt. Maj. (res.) Dennis Yekimov (IDF)

The Bislamach Brigade — the IDF’s School for Infantry Corps Professions and Squad Commanders in wartime — entered Gaza on Thursday to replace the Paratroopers Brigade, which was withdrawn after three straight months of fighting in Khan Younis.

Fighting in the Strip has shown little sign of slowing despite claims of gains in the southern Gaza city, and intense international efforts for a temporary ceasefire before Israel’s ground offensive expands to the southern city of Rafah.

In central Gaza, the IDF and Shin Bet said an airstrike Sunday morning took out Mahmoud Muhammad Abed Khad, who had led Hamas recruitment efforts, specifically to the terror group’s Zeitoun Battalion.

The IDF and Shin Bet said Khad was also involved in raising funds for Hamas military activity.

The IDF published video it said showed the strike on Khad as he traveled in a vehicle.

Palestinians in central Gaza said a truck hit by a drone had been carrying aid, a claim denied by the Israeli military, though it was unclear if it was the same strike that killed Khad.

“It was hit by a drone with one missile,” turning several people “into pieces,” said Haytham al-Quraan, as he examined the remains. “They were delivering aid to the south. Then it was hit again by a second missile.”

People gather around a truck that was hit in a reported Israeli airstrike on the main coastal road in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

The Palestinian Red Crescent said crews “transferred five martyrs” and four injured “due to targeting a truck by an Israeli drone.”

Contacted about the incident, the military told AFP: “It was not an aid truck that was struck,” but did not elaborate.

Further north, the IDF said it had wrapped up a two-week-long raid in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood, after troops were redeployed to the area to prevent terrorists from retaking control of the area the IDF had said it had conquered earlier in the war.

The army said at least 113 “terror operatives” were killed in the operation, during which troops destroyed some 35 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets, including weapon depots and manufacturing sites, tunnel infrastructure, rocket launching sites with hundreds of launchers, and a site belonging to the commander of the Gaza City Brigade, Izz ad-Din Haddad, according to the IDF.

It was unclear if the sites had been re-established or left intact by the IDF following its first sweep of the area months earlier.

Dozens more terror suspects were captured, the army said, accusing Hamas gunmen of hiding among the civilian population in Zeitoun.

Hamas gunmen are operating in Zeitoun without a “military framework,” and in relatively small cells, according to the IDF, after the military said it dismantled the terror group’s battalions in the area in the early stages of the ground offensive.

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip in a photo released for publication on March 3, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Four soldiers were killed over the course of the operation, as troops were targeted with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and explosive devices amid the operations. According to the IDF, most of the attacks on troops in Zeitoun occurred during the day, rather than at night.

Airstrikes continued to pound areas of southern Gaza, with an AFP correspondent reporting several air strikes in southern Gaza’s Rafah and Khan Younis late Sunday.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said on Sunday that the death toll in the war had surpassed 30,400 people, with an additional 71,700 people having been injured.

The terror group’s figures are unverified, don’t differentiate between civilians and combatants, and list all the fatalities as caused by Israel — even those believed to have been caused by hundreds of misfired rockets or otherwise by Palestinian fire.

Israel has said it killed some 13,000 Hamas members in Gaza fighting, in addition to some 1,000 killed in Israel in the aftermath of the terror group’s invasion of southern Israel.

War erupted on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists launched a brutal assault on southern communities, slaughtering some 1,200 people and kidnapping 253 people to Gaza.

In this aerial view, Palestinians check the rubble of a building destroyed in an overnight Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024, (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Israel says it will continue fighting in Gaza until it has eliminated Hamas and all hostages are returned. However, international calls for a ceasefire or temporary truce have gained traction in recent weeks as the civilian death toll has risen, and a humanitarian crisis has worsened.

Speaking to troops of the 98th Division on the Gaza border, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed Israel will not end the war in the Gaza Strip until Hamas is completely dismantled.

“We will not end this war without eliminating Hamas. There will be no such situation. There will be no Hamas as a ruling organization. It will take the time it takes,” he said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with troops of the 98th Division on the Gaza border, March 3, 2024. (Elad Malka/ Defense Ministry)

At a morgue outside a Rafah hospital on Sunday morning, women wept and wailed beside rows of bodies of the Abu Anza family, 14 of whom were killed in their home in an airstrike overnight, they said. Relatives opened a black plastic body bag to kiss the face of a dead schoolgirl in a torn sweatshirt and pink unicorn pajamas.

Later, the bodies were brought to a graveyard and buried, including two infant twins, a boy, and a girl, passed down in white bundles and placed in the ground.

“My heart is gone,” wailed their mother, Rania Abu Anza, who also lost her husband in the attack. “I haven’t had enough time with them.”

At least 16 children have died of malnutrition in recent days as “famine spreads” in Gaza’s north, said a spokesman for the Hamas-run health ministry.

The UN has said it is becoming more difficult to distribute aid inside Gaza. The flow of aid from Egypt has almost dried up in the past two weeks, and a collapse in security has made it increasingly difficult to distribute the food that does get through, according to UN data and officials.

Israel, which checks all trucks entering Gaza from both the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings, has blamed the United Nations for not delivering the aid fast enough after they are cleared, and for leading to a general fall-off in deliveries over the past month.

Women react after the destruction of their house in an overnight Israeli airstrike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Officials are also seeking ways to deliver aid to northern Gaza, after a convoy that entered the area early Thursday was embroiled in a chaotic melee in which dozens of Palestinians died and hundreds more were wounded, with Hamas accusing Israel of opening fire on hungry Gazans.

The IDF maintains many of the casualties were trampled in a chaotic crush for the aid, and that troops only fired at a few individuals who rushed toward them in a threatening manner.

Intense efforts by the US, Egypt, and Qatar to broker a temporary ceasefire and hostage release deal before the beginning of Ramadan this month in about a week appeared to hit a snag on Sunday when Israel did not send a negotiating team to Cairo.

The move came after Hamas refused to provide a list of living hostages and to lock down how many Palestinian prisoners Israel must release for every hostage freed as part of the talks.

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