Israeli aircraft bombarded the southern Gaza Strip overnight in apparent preparation for expanding the military’s ground offensive, the military said Tuesday, even as continued fighting near Gaza City challenged the army’s claim that it was largely in control of the north of the Strip after 80 days of war.
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders vowing to continue fighting, despite growing international pressure to wind down the battle and calls at home for a deal to free hostages held in Gaza, the military appeared poised Tuesday for a newly intensified push into the central and southern parts of the Strip.
“This is a long, tough war. It has costs, heavy costs, but its justification is the highest that can be,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Knesset lawmakers Tuesday, hours after the army raised the death toll from the ground offensive to 158 soldiers. He vowed Israel would punish Hamas over its brutal October 7 attack, “whether it takes months or years.”
He also said Israel was fighting on “seven fronts” and had hit back on six of them.
The overnight airstrikes targeted over 100 Hamas sites in the southern Gaza Strip “as part of backing for forces maneuvering on the ground,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.
Residents of central Gaza on Tuesday described a night of shelling and airstrikes shaking the areas of Nuseirat, Maghazi and Bureij in central Gaza, areas crowded with people who fled from the north.
According to the military Tuesday, the air force targeted tunnel shafts, military sites, and other infrastructure used by terror operatives to attack Israeli forces during the overnight operations.
The army is thought to be moving its offensive toward Khan Younis, the largest city in southern Gaza, where many leaders of the Hamas terror group are thought to have fled. On Monday, Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar appeared defiant in his first message since the October 7 massacre, grossly inflating the terror group’s achievements in the war.
During strikes in the Khan Younis area, the IDF said the 7th Armored Brigade directed IAF aircraft to hit more than 10 Hamas operatives within just a few minutes.
In another incident in Khan Younis, the IDF said the Givati Brigade spotted a Hamas cell moving toward a building used by the terror group to store weapons. An airstrike was then called in against the building.
— גלצ (@GLZRadio) December 26, 2023
Two soldiers were killed in fighting in southern Gaza Monday, the army said, naming them as:
- Staff Sgt. (res.) Elisha Yehonatan Lober, 24, of the 179th Reserve Armored Brigade’s 8104th Battalion, from Yitzhar.
- Sgt. First Class (res.) Joseph Yosef Gitarts, 25, of the 179th Reserve Armored Brigade’s 7029th Battalion, from Tel Aviv.
Lober was killed during a gun battle with Hamas operatives, and Gitarts was killed by an anti-tank guided missile.
Fighting also persisted in northern Gaza, even as the IDF has indicated it has “operational control” over most of the area.
Overnight in Jabaliya, troops of the 261st Brigade battled a Hamas operative who attempted to place an explosive device near a tank, according to the IDF. Troops called in an airstrike against the operative, members of the cell behind the attack, as well as a building being used by the cell, the IDF said.
Meanwhile, Givati troops operating with the 401st Armored Brigade raided an Islamic Jihad compound in the Gaza City neighborhoods of Daraj and Tuffah, locating firearms, explosives, and intelligence documents, according to the IDF.
Footage released by the IDF shows troops of the 261st Brigade (the Bahad 1 officers' school in wartime) battling a Hamas operative who attempted to place an explosive device near a tank overnight in northern Gaza's Jabaliya.
At the same time, the soldiers called in an airstrike… pic.twitter.com/thmXbwNBHY
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In the same area, Nahal Brigade soldiers raided homes where they had battled Hamas fighters, finding dozens of assault rifles, grenades, and RPGs in a children’s bedroom, the army said. It said the finds bolstered its contention that Hamas “hides weapons and terror activity under civilian cover.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday, Netanyahu said the area would not see peace until Hamas was destroyed, Gaza was demilitarized and Palestinians were deradicalized, continuing to object to plans for a revamped Palestinian Authority to take over control of Gaza once the war ends.
Notably, the premier’s conditions did not include the release of the 129 hostages who were kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 and are still being held by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, along with two captives and the remains of two soldiers held since 2014.
Israel launched its war against Hamas after the terror group led an unprecedented assault into southern Israel on October 7, Some 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians, were massacred. Another approximately 240 people were kidnapped, including women, children and the elderly. A previous truce deal allowed for the release of over 100 women and children, but talks for a new deal have foundered.
Gallant warned the Knesset’s powerful Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee against allowing threats to fester along Israel’s borders, saying that the military was dealing with threats on six of seven fronts, in what was seen as an implied message to Iran.
“We are in a multi-front war. We are being attacked from seven fronts — Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), Iraq, Yemen and Iran,” he said. “We have already responded and acted on six of those fronts.”
“Everyone who acts against us is a potential target,” he added. “Nobody has immunity.”
“Without meeting the goals of the war, we will find ourselves in a situation where the problem will not be those who live near Gaza or live in the north; the problem will be that people will not want to live in a place where we do not know how to protect them,” he also said.
The full-throated defense of Israel’s war goals came a day after families of hostages heckled the prime minister during a speech in the Knesset, as he argued that military pressure was the surest way to secure their release but required “time.”
“We don’t have time,” one relative called out in response from the Knesset gallery, after which the families chanted “Now! Now! Now!” demanding the immediate release of the hostages.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who had mostly cooled attacks on Netanyahu since the October massacres, also level criticism at the premier, telling Army Radio that he did not trust Netanyahu’s management of the war.
“If the October 7 attacks happened on my watch, I would have resigned that day,” Lapid said.
Netanyahu is also facing pressure from the US to quickly transition toward a less-intense form of fighting, with President Joe Biden’s administration joining international calls for the humanitarian crisis in the Strip to ease, even as Washington has continued to back Israel’s refusal to entertain a ceasefire with Hamas still in charge of Gaza.
The expanding fighting has pushed the population into a shrinking area, particularly the city of Deir al-Balah in the center and Rafah at the far south of Gaza, on the Egyptian border. More than a million people have squeezed into UN shelters, and many more displaced people are crowded into houses.
Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health authorities claim Israel’s bombing campaign and fighting on the ground have killed over 20,600 people in Gaza, though the figures cannot be verified and Hamas has been accused of inflating casualty figures in the past, and including those killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.
Hamas does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, though it claims that the dead include thousands of women and children.
The IDF says it has killed some 8,000 Hamas operatives in Gaza and another 1,000 terrorists during and immediately after the October 7 attacks.
Agencies contributed to this report.