ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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ToI in Salatin, Gaza StripCeasefire started at 7. At 7:15, dozens of terrorists ran at us

Hamas broke temporary truce in Gaza minutes after it began, senior IDF officer says

Speaking to ToI from wrecked town outside Jabaliya in northern part of Strip, commander of reserve battalion says ‘there isn’t a single house here without weapons’

Emanuel Fabian

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

Israeli troops in a Humvee drive in northern Gaza's Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Israeli troops in a Humvee drive in northern Gaza's Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

SALATIN, Gaza Strip — Two weeks have passed since a temporary truce between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas in the Gaza Strip began, and exactly a week since it ended.

Shortly after the terror group made clear that it was not abiding by the ceasefire agreement on December 1, the military resumed fighting in the Palestinian enclave.

But a senior officer now reveals that Hamas broke the truce much earlier, in fact just 15 minutes after it began, on November 24.

“We were here, well prepared,” said Lt. Col. (res.) Yisrael — his last name was withheld by the IDF for security concerns — the commander of the 261st Brigade’s 8717th “Alon” Battalion, to The Times of Israel and other reporters in the Palestinian town of Salatin, on the outskirts of Jabaliya, in northern Gaza.

“At 7 a.m. the ceasefire started, and at 7:15 a.m., dozens of terrorists ran toward us from every direction. Some of them opened fire and our forces killed them. Between 7:15 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., we killed 20 terrorists. And then they realized they shouldn’t mess with us, and we stopped their assault,” Yisrael said. The Times of Israel could not verify the exact number of Hamas operatives who were killed by troops that morning, and other military sources said there were only a handful of incidents in which gunmen attacked troops at the start of the truce.

Noting one specific incident, Yisrael said that at around 7:15 a.m. on November 24, a Palestinian family had attempted to return to their home in the area. As the family approached their building, shots were fired at Israeli troops from an adjacent home, he said.

“The troops returned fire, I don’t know if we hit [the operative], he likely fled,” Yisrael said. “The next morning we arrived [at the building] and found his Kalashnikov [assault rifle], his uniform. It just shows their method of operating. The terrorist had arrived under the auspices of the family. They have no mercy for their own families, for their children,” he said.

Smoke rises from Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Yisrael said the Hamas operatives are fighting like “cowards.”

“They don’t really try to face us, but to sting here and there. Their method of operating is fleeing in civilian clothes, leaving behind their uniform, their guns, anti-tank missiles, explosives, and they just run. After we leave the area, they return and attack the next forces,” he said.

Yisrael said the attacks on November 24 were a “cynical exploitation” of the ceasefire.

The IDF had reported other violations during the week-long truce. But the breaches within minutes of the ceasefire went unmentioned by the IDF, likely in a bid to uphold the agreement, which saw Hamas later release 105 civilian hostages, in exchange for a lull in fighting and Israel’s release of 240 Palestinian security prisoners. The ceasefire ended early on December 1 after Hamas failed to provide a new list of hostages for release that day, and fired rockets at Israel just before the 7:00 a.m. deadline.

‘In every house, there are weapons, tunnels’

“We are working hard here, every day, clearing the area. Wherever there are terrorists, we kill [them]. Wherever there is infrastructure, we take it out. We are turning every stone, clearing every house,” Yisrael said.

IDF soldiers operate in northern Gaza’s Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“There isn’t a single house here without weapons, there isn’t a house without [tunnel] infrastructure. It’s unbelievable. In dozens of yards of homes we found dozens of rocket launchers,” he said. “We found Kalashnikovs under mattresses, inside clothes closets. It wasn’t thrown there suddenly, they were hidden in the homes.”

He said Hamas’s placement of weapons and infrastructure within civilian sites was an attempt to “take advantage of the sensitivity we once had.”

“Schools, a cemetery near us, in a clinic… these are the places where they concentrated most of their tunnel shafts. They thought we wouldn’t strike there, and that’s where we found the enemy’s significant infrastructure,” Yisrael said.

A multiple rocket launcher system is seen after being destroyed by Israeli troops in northern Gaza’s Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

He said his battalion is working to “deprive the enemy of its abilities” during its slow but thorough operations in northern Gaza.

“The enemy has nothing to return to. It has no infrastructure here to return to, it has no weapons in the homes to return to and use against us,” he said.

As we tour the area, Yisrael shows us two multiple rocket launchers, as well as a mortar launcher that the troops had found adjacent to homes. One of the rocket launchers, partially blown up by the forces, still has cables running from it to the basement of one of the homes.

There were three massive craters between the homes, as a result of Israeli Air Force strikes. The mortar launcher, aimed at the Israeli border community of Netiv Haasara, was completely intact. One of the IAF strikes had missed the launch site by about a meter, highlighting the IDF’s need for boots on the ground.

Israeli troops stand near a crater caused by an airstrike, as smoke rises from Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Moving to another area in Salatin, Yisrael showed us a tunnel shaft located just outside a home. It goes down 15 meters, he said. Later in the day, the tunnel was destroyed.

Asked if he was concerned that the military may be missing tunnels that could be used to attack forces when they least expect, he responded: “There are tunnels everywhere in Gaza, it takes time.”

Reservists of all ages

The 261st Brigade is made up of reservists, mostly ex-members of the Givati Infantry Brigade, as well as cadets from the Bahad 1 IDF officers’ school. The 8717th Battalion lost two soldiers during the battles in northern Gaza — Sgt. Maj. (res.) Rani Tahan and Master Sgt. (res.) Yakir Biton — and two more reservists who were killed during the October 7 onslaught — Ariel Refael Guri, and Orel Alon.

A Hamas tunnel discovered by IDF troops in northern Gaza’s Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Back home, Yisrael has a wife and children waiting for him, much like the other troops in the battalion.

“It’s difficult, complex, very challenging, kids who haven’t seen their father [in two months]… but I think everyone understands that we have no choice,” Yisrael said.

As for his soldiers, Yisrael said he is aware of their difficulties too. “I won’t say it isn’t challenging, it’s very difficult, people are struggling because of their jobs, it’s complex for their families. But whoever is here for the past 63 days, whoever is here fighting, has gone through the physical pain and mental pain, and is now here due to willpower, friendships, wanting to obtain the objectives,” he said.

“Nobody is here because I told them to be,” he said, noting that around 60 of the troops are volunteering, as they are old enough to be exempt from reserve duty.

Lt. Col. (res.) Yisrael, the commander of the 261st Brigade’s 8717th “Alon” Battalion, in northern Gaza’s Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“The battalion is made up of reservists, veterans and younger soldiers. Some are close to 50, even one or two who are older than 50. We have younger soldiers who were released [from active service] a year ago,” Yisrael said. “These are people sacrificing everything for the country, the best people in the country. They left behind everything, their families, their work, to fight here.”

“I feel we are finally eliminating Hamas. We saw the horrors of October 7, my battalion saw the bodies. We are not messing around, we know exactly what we are doing here,” he said.

“Our equipment might not be as good [as the standing army units], but we have spirit, and we are here to fight, to kill the enemy, to win, and go back home,” Yisrael added.

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