Gaza war claims lives of five soldiers amid battles for Hamas strongholds

Some $1.36 million in cash found in suitcases at home of Hamas official in northern Gaza; number of airstrikes falls; Pentagon chief visits to press for narrowing offensive

L-R: Sgt. First Class Urija Bayer, Sgt. First Class Liav Aloush, Master Sgt. (res.) Etan Naeh, Master Sgt. (res.) Tal Filiba, Sgt. First Class (res.) Lidor Yosef Karavani who were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip on December 17, 2023 (courtesy)
L-R: Sgt. First Class Urija Bayer, Sgt. First Class Liav Aloush, Master Sgt. (res.) Etan Naeh, Master Sgt. (res.) Tal Filiba, Sgt. First Class (res.) Lidor Yosef Karavani who were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip on December 17, 2023 (courtesy)

Four troops were killed in fighting in Gaza and another soldier died of his wounds, the army announced Monday, as Israel’s military extended its thrust into battle-hardened Hamas strongholds on opposite ends of the enclave, seizing weapons and suitcases stuffed with over $1 million in cash.

The five deaths Sunday raised the military’s death toll in Israel’s ground operation in the Gaza Strip to 127, a reminder of the tough opposition faced by troops attempting to topple the Hamas terror group, as Israel continued to reel from the accidental killing of three escaped hostages misidentified as terrorists in a rubble-strewn Gaza neighborhood.

The intense fighting took place as reports swirled of an apparent renewed effort for a fresh hostage release deal and as the UN Security Council prepared to vote on a resolution expected to call for hostilities to cease and hostages held in Gaza to be let go.

Some 128 people remain hostages after being kidnapped by Hamas terrorists who rampaged through southern Israel on October 7 and massacred 1,200 people, sparking the war.

The IDF said three soldiers were killed during fighting Sunday in southern Gaza, where troops have concentrated on taking control of Khan Younis. Some of the terror group’s senior officers are thought to have fled to the southern metropolis from Gaza City amid the IDF’s campaign in the northern Gaza Strip, where battles were also continuing.

The three fatalities were named as Sgt. First Class Liav Aloush, 21, a commando in the Duvdevan unit, from Gedera; Master Sgt. (res.) Etan Naeh, 26, a commando in the the Duvdevan unit, from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu; and Master Sgt. (res.) Tal Filiba, 23, of the Combat Engineering Corps’ Yahalom unit, from Rehovot.

In northern Gaza, Sgt. First Class (res.) Lidor Yosef Karavani, 23, of the Combat Engineering Corps’ 8163rd Battalion, from Eilat, was killed.

Additionally, the army announced that Sgt. First Class Urija Bayer, 20, a commando in the Maglan unit, died of wounds sustained in fighting in southern Gaza on December 14.

Friends attending the funeral of 26-year-old Alon Shamriz mourn over the grave of a victim of the Oct. 7th attack buried in the same cemetery in Kibbutz Shefayim, Israel, Sunday Dec. 17, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Bayer, an Evangelical Christian who volunteered with the IDF, was from Ma’alot Tarshiha, where his family has for decades run an old age home for Holocaust survivors. The home, as well as a free guesthouse for survivors in Nahariya, was founded by Bayer’s German grandparents, who wanted to atone for their country’s sins.

Aloush’s mother, a retired IDF casualty assistance officer, told the Ynet news site that she had not spoken to her son for at least two weeks.

“I didn’t want to get that knock on the door. To get the most terrible news after in the past you were the one assisting bereaved families,” she said. “Liav lived voraciously, he didn’t rest for a second. He had a good life, it’s just a shame it was so short.”

Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip in a photo released December 18, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

Two reservists were also seriously wounded in fighting Sunday.

The army said Monday morning it carried out strikes against some 150 sites across Gaza over the past day, including airstrikes in Khan Younis on a Hamas cell identified by a drone and on a sniper spotted by troops on the ground.

The number of daily airstrikes, which regularly climbed above 500 in the early days of the war, has steadily declined in recent weeks as the ground offensive has expanded, with the IDF controlling large swaths of the enclave.

Israel has come under increasing pressure from the US to lower the intensity of its offensive soon and shift to a more focused campaign to eliminate Hamas, the terror group ruling the Strip since 2007.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. CQ Brown arrived Monday in Israel, where they were expected to press Jerusalem on making the transition to targeted operations aimed at killing Hamas leaders, destroying tunnels and rescuing hostages.

Israel embarked on its campaign against Hamas following the October 7 massacre, when some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages, mostly civilians.

More than 18,700 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, according to Hamas health authorities in Gaza, which has said most are women and minors. Gaza health officials do not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, and the numbers are thought to include those killed by errant Palestinian rockets aimed at Israel.

Israeli military vehicles operate inside Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Israel said earlier this month that it had killed some 7,000 Hamas operatives, and admitted that many civilians had also been killed, blaming Hamas for using them as human shields. It has taken pains to move civilians away from combat zones, publishing maps of safe areas and opening escape routes.

A senior Hamas health official told al Jazeera on Sunday that 110 people had been killed in a strike in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, on the outskirts of Gaza City, one of a handful of areas in northern Gaza where intense fighting has persisted. The claim could not be independently verified.

The IDF said troops found suitcases stuffed with some NIS 5 million ($1.36 million) in the home of a senior Hamas member in Jabaliya, as well as weapons.

Cash seized at the home of a senior Hamas member in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, in a handout image published by the IDF, December 18, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Despite the US pressure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet has vowed to continue fighting until Hamas has been crushed. Complicating those promises, however, are increasingly loud voices in Israel demanding a deal to release the remaining approximately 128 hostages still in Gaza captivity.

Those calls were bolstered over the weekend by the accidental killing of Avi Shamriz, Yotam Haim and Samar Fouad Talalka, three hostages who managed to escape their captors, but who were shot as they approached troops.

A previous weeklong truce deal saw over 100 civilian hostages released from Gaza and 240 Palestinian prisoners released from Israel. Qatar-mediated talks for a new deal are seemingly starting up again, with Mossad chief David Barnea widely reported to have met with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Norway on Friday night to discuss the possibility of a new agreement.

A rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Citing two sources, the Wall Street Journal said that the talks “are just the beginning” and that the process would be “long, difficult and complicated.”

With the international community increasingly backing calls for a ceasefire, the UN Security Council was set to vote Monday on a UAE-sponsored resolution calling for an “urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities to allow safe and unhindered humanitarian access in the Gaza Strip” and the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.”

Like a previous US-vetoed resolution demanding a ceasefire on December 9, the new draft text too does not explicitly name Hamas but does vaguely condemn “all indiscriminate attacks against civilians.”

The killing of the escaped hostages underlined the complexity involved in fighting in Gaza’s dense urban environment, where troops have been told to be wary of booby traps and surprise attacks by gunmen emerging from the vast network of tunnels running under the Strip.

Israeli soldiers are seen in a tunnel that the military says Hamas terrorists used to attack the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, December 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

On Sunday, the army revealed a massive tunnel running some four kilometers (2.5 miles) 50 meters (165 feet) underground, with enough room for a car to drive through. It said the tunnel, discovered near the Erez Crossing in northern Gaza, is the largest ever found.

Last week, the IDF announced that soldiers had discovered more than 800 tunnel shafts in the Strip since the beginning of the ground offensive targeting Hamas that began in late October, some 500 of which had already been destroyed.

The IDF has also carried out a successful trial of pumping seawater into the vast network of tunnels beneath Gaza, a move aimed at destroying the Palestinian terror group’s subterranean network of passages and hideaways and at driving its operatives above ground.

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