US dissatisfied with Israeli buffer zone plans

Hamas fires rockets at central Israel; Gallant: Half of group’s fighters killed or hurt

Launch of nearly 11 rockets, the first such attack in a month, shows terror group’s arsenal not completely depleted after nearly four months of fighting

Trails of rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on January 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Trails of rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on January 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Hamas launched a barrage of rockets at central Israel on Monday for the first time in over a month, damaging several cars but not causing any injuries.

Seven of the 11 rockets were shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system, with the remainder landing in open areas, after triggering sirens in Tel Aviv, as well as in surrounding cities, including Rishon Lezion, Holon and Bat Yam.

It was the first such rocket attack since early December, demonstrating that Hamas’s arsenal has not been completely depleted, after nearly four months of fighting.

The terror group claimed responsibility for the barrage, saying it was fired to avenge the ongoing deaths in Gaza. Hebrew media reported that the rockets were fired from the Khan Younis area. The IDF has been operating in large parts of the southern Gaza city.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Israel launched a new assault on Gaza’s main northern city, weeks after pulling back from it.

Residents told Reuters that air strikes on neighborhoods across Gaza City killed and wounded many people. While tanks shelled the eastern areas of the city, naval boats fired shells and gun rounds at the beachfront areas in the west, they said.

Israel said late last year that it had largely completed operations in northern Gaza. The push back into Gaza City, where residents reported fierce gun battles near the main Al-Shifa hospital, indicated that the war was not going to plan, Reuters claimed.

Among those killed were two Palestinian journalists, Essam El-lulu and Hussein Attalah, along with several members of their families, health officials and the journalist union told Reuters.

The IDF also advanced in its operations in Khan Younis, with troops from the 98th Division raiding the offices of a number of senior Hamas officials in the southern Gaza city, including the terror group’s chief Yahya Sinwar, the military said.

The military said that troops had “raided hundreds of terrorist infrastructures,” including a military intelligence building, and a major rocket-producing factory.

Israeli Brigadier General Dan Goldfus, left, stands by a Hamas tunnel underneath a cemetery during the ground offensive on the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis, January 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Sam McNeil)

The 98th division also discovered a Hamas underground tunnel beneath a cemetery in the heart of Khan Younis, the military said.

Soldiers found explosives in the tunnel and also killed terrorists who were inside it, according to the IDF. The military said the tunnel included an office used by the commander of the eastern battalion of Hamas’s Khan Younis Brigade to direct its activities on October 7.

The Yahalom unit later destroyed the tunnel, which was equipped with multiple rooms, running water and sliding doors, the IDF said.

Military officials were quoted in Hebrew media saying they assess that Hamas chiefs are “perpetually on the move” in the tunnel networks of southern Gaza, “apparently surrounded by hostages.”

IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari said Monday night that 2,000 Hamas fighters have been killed during the IDF’s operations in Khan Younis, and that two of Hamas’s four battalions, in the east of the city, are no longer functional. Troops are now tackling the other two battalions, in the west of Khan Younis.

He said IDF troops operating inside the tunnels have “captured terrorists who took part in the October 7 slaughter.”

Gallant: Half Hamas fighters dead or wounded

Visiting IDF reservists on Monday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant claimed at least half of Hamas’s fighters in Gaza have been killed or wounded.

“We’re in a long war, but in the end, we will break Hamas,” Gallant said. “Terrorists remain, and we are fighting against pockets of resistance… It will take months, not one day.”

“On the other hand, they don’t have supplies, they don’t have ammunition and they don’t have reinforcements,” he continued. “It’s hard for them to take care of themselves, of their wounded, and other things. We have killed already a quarter of the Hamas terrorists at least, and the same number are wounded.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks to IDF reservists near the Gaza border on January 29, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said at least 26,637 people have been killed in the Strip during the ongoing war. The latest toll includes 215 deaths over the past 24 hours, the ministry said, while 65,387 people have been wounded since October 7.

The death toll 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 over 10,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Israeli soldiers stand in a Hamas tunnel underneath a cemetery during the ground offensive on the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Sam McNeil)

Open-fire controversy

Meanwhile, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatening the stability of the coalition over open-fire rules for IDF soldiers in the Gaza Strip, which he claims have changed. The IDF denied any change.

In his letter, Ben Gvir wrote that it was reported that IDF soldiers stationed along the border with Gaza “were ordered not to fire” on Gazans approaching the border fence. He noted that the cabinet’s military secretary denied this, “but since then more and more testimony from soldiers is confirming the report.”

He said that “if the open-fire rules are not changed [back], there will be an effect on the coalition.”

Shortly after his letter was publicized, the IDF issued a statement denying any change in open-fire regulations, stating that “IDF troops are acting according to the rules not to allow anyone to approach the border fence.” The rules in question enable troops to operate while preventing friendly fire or harm to Israeli citizens including hostages who may approach the area, the IDF said.

Kerem Shalom protests

Separately on Monday, four people were reportedly detained at a protest at the Kerem Shalom crossing seeking to block aid from entering the Gaza Strip.

The IDF declared the area a closed military zone on Sunday after several days of demonstrations, many attended by family members of hostages held in the Strip.

While lines of border officers blocked the protesters from reaching the road where trucks loaded with humanitarian equipment were queued to enter, scores of people still rallied nearby, waving flags and holding signs demanding that Hamas release the 136 Israelis it is holding.

Israeli police prevent activists from blocking trucks carrying humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza, in southern Israel, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

In contrast to recent days, when the protesters blocked the trucks, Hebrew media reports said the aid was processed and sent on toward Gaza at Kerem Shalom on Monday.

Returning residents

Netanyahu’s office said that “significant progress” was being made toward returning displaced residents of southern Israel to their homes.

In a statement, his office said Netanyahu held a meeting Monday with various officials and that “final adjustments are being made in order to advance on the issue.”

The decisions will be brought to the cabinet for discussion soon, the statement added.

US opposes Israel’s Gaza buffer zone

Israeli officials have told their American counterparts in recent days that the buffer zone the IDF is establishing on the Gaza side of the border with Israel is only meant to be temporary and will be removed once Hamas is completely removed from power, a US official told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Over the past several weeks, the IDF has been razing Palestinian homes along the border to establish the zone, about one kilometer (0.6 miles) deep, sparking alarm in Washington, which has insisted that there be no reduction in Gaza’s territory after the war.

The US official said that the Biden administration is not on board with even a temporary buffer zone and has voiced that stance with Jerusalem.

Washington believes that, once it is established, Israel will not agree to withdraw from the buffer zone, the US official added.

Buildings razed in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, as part of the army’s efforts to establish a buffer zone on the border with the Gaza Strip, as seen in an image provided by the IDF on January 10, 2024. The Israel-Gaza border runs across the bottom of the picture. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that after 114 days of fighting, as much as 80 percent of Hamas’s tunnel system beneath the Gaza Strip could still remain intact.

The Journal report cited Israeli and US officials and noted that it is difficult to assess how much of the subterranean labyrinth has been destroyed by Israeli troops so far, but estimated that 20% to 40% of it has been damaged or rendered unusable.

Since launching a ground offensive in the wake of the October 7 massacre, in which Hamas-led terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took 253 hostages, Israeli forces have worked to destroy the tunnels, uncovering more and more of the Gaza-ruling terror organization’s underground network.

Smoke billows over Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli air strikes on January 29, 2024. (AFP)

Some of the tunnels have been bombed, while others have been flooded. However, progress is slow as underground passages must be mapped and checked for booby traps and hostages before Israeli forces can destroy them.

A senior Israeli military official told the Journal that the IDF was focused on eliminating “nodes” within the tunnels where Hamas operatives are hiding, instead of demolishing entire networks.

Hamas leader Sinwar and other terror commanders are believed to be hiding underground. The report cited Israeli officials who said that the Gaza terror chief is believed to be in a command center in a tunnel under Khan Younis, along with some of the hostages.

Earlier this month it was reported that senior Israeli defense officials now assess that Hamas’s Gaza tunnel network is between 350 and 450 miles long, far longer than previously believed.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report

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