Palestinian terrorists in Gaza continued to rain down rockets on Israel’s south and the Israeli Air Force pounded Hamas targets in the Strip on Friday night amid Israel’s ongoing war with the Islamist terror group.
The Israel Defense Forces said it struck multiple Hamas command centers and underground infrastructure throughout the day, while also eliminating a senior Hamas engineer. It said Mahmoud Sabih headed a unit that developed weapons for Hamas, including drones, and had “exchanged knowledge with other terror groups throughout the Middle East.”
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant made an evening visit to an IDF assembly area near the border with Gaza and “closely monitored the readiness of the forces for the expansion of the campaign,” his office said.
Gallant spoke with commanders and soldiers from various units, a statement added. Tens of thousands of troops are gathered near the Gaza border ahead of Israel’s expected ground offensive in the Strip.
At the same time, rockets launched from the Strip at the southern coastal city of Ashkelon caused damage, authorities said. One rocket directly hit a home, causing damage, and another hit a number of cars, the Fire and Rescue Service said. There were no injuries.
Terrorists also launched rocket barrages at Sderot, Ashdod and several nearby towns. The Sderot municipality said a rocket that landed in the southern city caused damage to a street and bus stop, but no injuries.
The rocket fire came as Hamas released two hostages it captured during its October 7 invasion and killing spree in Israeli communities. American citizens Judith and Natalie Raanan crossed back into Israel and were to be reunited with their relatives at a military base.
Hamas cited humanitarian considerations for the release, which Washington said had been mediated by Qatar.
Also Friday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing into southern Gaza to oversee preparations for the delivery of aid.
Aid trucks waiting to cross into Gaza are “a lifeline” that needs to move into the war-torn Palestinian enclave as soon as possible, the UN chief said. “These trucks… are the difference between life and death for so many people in Gaza.”
US President Joe Biden speculated Friday that the border would reopen in 24 to 48 hours.
“I got a commitment from the Israelis and the president of Egypt that the crossing will be open,” Biden said. “The highway had to be repaved, and it was in very bad shape…and I believe in the next 24 to 48 hours, the first 20 trucks will come across the border.”
Cargo planes and trucks have been bringing humanitarian aid to Rafah for days, but so far none has been delivered to Gaza which has been under intense Israeli bombardment for almost two weeks since the October 7 attacks, when 2,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people and seizing 200-250 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.
The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men, women, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said Friday that more than 4,100 Palestinians, mainly civilians, had been killed in Israeli bombardments. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen, and the victims of a blast Tuesday at a Gaza City hospital. Hamas blamed the blast on Israel, which has produced evidence showing it was caused by an Islamic Jihad rocket misfire. The United States, also citing its own data, has endorsed the Israeli account.
Israel says it only targets terrorist targets, which are embedded within the civilian population, while making an effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Israel also cut off supplies of water, electricity, fuel and food to the territory of 2.4 million people, creating chronic shortages. It has since renewed the water supply to southern Gaza but says further aid will not be provided while hundreds of its citizens remain in Hamas captivity.
Israel has been urging all residents of northern Gaza to depart Gaza City and its surroundings as it prepares to intensify its offensive there.
Gallant on Friday laid out Israel’s objectives in its war against Hamas, saying that after the terror group has been destroyed, there will be a new “security reality” in the territory.
Speaking at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Tel Aviv, Gallant said the war’s objectives include eliminating Hamas by destroying its military and governmental capabilities.
Additionally, an ultimate aim is to remove any responsibility Israel has over Gaza by creating a new “security regime” in the Strip.
Gallant told the committee members that the war will have three main phases.
“We are in the first phase, in which a military campaign is taking place with [airstrikes] and later with a [ground] maneuver with the purpose of destroying operatives and damaging infrastructure in order to defeat and destroy Hamas,” Gallant said.
He said the second phase will be continued fighting but at a lower intensity as troops work to “eliminate pockets of resistance.”
“The third step will be the creation of a new security regime in the Gaza Strip, the removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip, and the creation of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel and the residents of the [area surrounding Gaza],” he said.
Earlier, IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the Israeli Air Force is ready to repel attacks by Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and is carrying out retaliatory airstrikes in the Gaza Strip “at a rate that has not been seen for decades.
On Thursday, a US Navy ship intercepted a number of missiles and drones launched from Yemen, apparently toward Israel.
Hagari said that the Israeli military is prepared to protect against potential attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis.
“This shows the defense capabilities of the US, and their ability to build a picture of the region,” Hagari said, noting the close relationship the IDF has with the US Central Command.
“Israel has some of the world’s best air defenses, and is prepared for threats like these,” he added.
US officials said Thursday that the USS Carney, a Navy destroyer, was in the Red Sea and intercepted the three missiles. Unnamed Israeli officials told Hebrew-language media that the missiles were fired in the direction of Israel.
Meanwhile, the military ordered the evacuation of Kiryat Shmona amid escalating tensions on the northern border — the town has a population of some 22,000 residents, though many have already left.
On Thursday, three residents were injured by a rocket strike on a home in what appeared to be the most serious attack on the city since 2006.
Earlier this week, the ministry’s National Emergency Management Authority began working to evacuate all communities within two kilometers of the Lebanon border.
The Israel Defense Forces also said it struck several more sites belonging to the Hezbollah terror group in southern Lebanon overnight in response to Thursday’s rocket and missile fire on northern Israel.
Recent days have seen repeated clashes between the Israeli military and the Hezbollah terror group and allied Palestinian factions in southern Lebanon, amid fears a new front could be opened as Israel continues its war with Hamas in Gaza.
In a briefing last week, a military official indicated that conditions on the northern border could affect the IDF’s decision-making on when to launch an incursion into Gaza.
On Thursday, senior Israeli officials talked up the prospect of an imminent large-scale ground campaign in the Gaza Strip to root out Hamas, making a series of visits to Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed near the territory and predicting that the fighting will be “difficult, long and intense,” but ultimately victorious.
The head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, said the expected ground offensive would be “long and intense.”
In a further sign the start of the ground offensive may be looming, the security cabinet, the body which must approve a ground incursion, met Thursday evening for some six hours. The forum has convened many times throughout the war already.
Recent days have seen growing pressure on the government to devise a clear strategy for how it plans to avoid getting bogged down in a lengthy reoccupation of the Strip, while ensuring the Palestinian enclave is no longer managed by the terror group and no longer poses a threat.
The Biden administration has also been privately pressing Israel to flesh out its exit strategy, the Israeli official and a US official said at the time. Netanyahu and his inner circle indicated to their American counterparts that Israel had not yet come up with such a strategy and is more focused on the immediate goal of removing Hamas from power in Gaza, the US official said.
On Wednesday, Biden cautioned Israel against getting bogged down in Gaza indefinitely, drawing on the US’s experiences in Afghanistan following its 2001 invasion to topple the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
“Justice must be done,” Biden said in Tel Aviv. “But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it… After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”
Jacob Magid, Lazar Berman and agencies contributed to this report.