IDF calls on residents of central Gaza town to move south as ground op expands

IDF reveals another major Hamas tunnel network under Gaza City, says army close to full control of northern Strip; Gallant threatens Sinwar will soon ‘meet the barrels of our guns’

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

A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 21, 2023, shows smoke billowing amid the destruction in northern Gaza. (Jack Guez/AFP)
A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 21, 2023, shows smoke billowing amid the destruction in northern Gaza. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The IDF began calling on some residents of central Gaza to evacuate south on Friday in the latest indication that the military’s ground offensive in the Strip was expanding, as the defense minister issued a renewed threat against Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar and the military revealed a new major Hamas tunnel network.

Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, the IDF’s Arabic-language spokesman, published a map of the zones in central Gaza’s Bureij town whose residents the army was urging to head for shelters in Deir al-Balah.

Adraee also said that Gaza’s main north-south highway, Salah ad-Din, in the areas northeast of Khan Younis, still remains a “battle zone” and that the IDF will instead facilitate the movement of civilians via a bypass route along the coast.

Additionally, Adraee said in his statement the IDF will make “tactical pauses in military activities” in the western neighborhoods of Rafah in southern Gaza, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., for “humanitarian purposes.”

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant issued a renewed threat Friday evening against Yahya Sinwar, saying the Hamas leader will soon “meet the barrels of our guns.”

Gallant said the IDF is “gradually completing” its goals in northern Gaza, while also operating in the Khan Younis area and southern Gaza, and will operate in other places in the future, he said. “One thing is clear, Yahya Sinwar now hears the IDF [tank treads] above him, the Air Force bombs and the IDF’s operations. He will also meet the barrels of our guns soon,” Gallant adds. Sinwar is believed by the IDF to be hiding underground in southern Gaza.

The IDF revealed later Friday that it uncovered another large Hamas tunnel network in the southern part of Gaza City, publishing footage showing a dog from the Oketz canine unit scanning the underground passages.

According to the IDF, the network is hundreds of meters long and includes command rooms, storage and large resting areas with electricity, communication lines and water.

The tunnel was found by the IDF after troops of the Yiftah Brigade and combat engineers battled Hamas operatives at a main compound belonging to the terror group in Gaza City, near the al-Quds Hospital.

The tunnels were later destroyed by combat engineers and the 99th Division.

IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said Friday that the military is nearing complete “operational control” of northern Gaza, as it further expands operations in the southern part of the Strip.

He said at a press conference that troops are battling the last standing Hamas battalion, in the Daraj and Tuffah neighborhoods of Gaza City, and still fighting Hamas in other areas of northern Gaza, albeit at a “lower intensity.”

Earlier Friday, the IDF said that troops of the 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade operating in central Gaza’s Juhor ad-Dik located a cache of weapons and long-range rocket launchers used in recent attacks on Israel.

The rocket launchers were later destroyed in an airstrike, the IDF said.

Separately, the 7th Armored Brigade operating in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis located weapons inside residential homes.

In Gaza City’s Shati camp, the IDF said the 14th Reserve Armored Brigade raided a school and also located weapons.

And the 179th Reserve Armored Brigade, operating south of Gaza City, found further caches of weapons in homes along with a rocket launcher, the IDF said.

Separately, combat engineers operating with the Kiryati Brigade located and destroyed a tunnel shaft from which Hamas operatives fired RPGs at troops.

Meanwhile, fighter jets struck a Hamas operative, spotted by the 215th Artillery Regiment, while planting explosive devices to be used against troops.

The IDF also said that the Navy carried out strikes over the past day to aid ground forces.

The IDF revealed footage obtained from the body camera of a Hamas operative in the Gaza Strip, showing gunmen preparing a roadside bomb to be used against Israeli troops.

The camera was found following a recent battle in northern Gaza, during which troops of the Nahal Infantry Brigade’s 931st Battalion encountered a group of Hamas gunmen hiding on the third floor of a building.

The IDF said the gunmen hurled grenades from the building at the troops, who engaged them inside the structure and used tanks to shell the top floor where they were holed up.

After scanning the building, the soldiers found the camera on the body of one of the gunmen, with footage showing they had placed explosive devices in the area.

The army announced Friday that two more troops were killed fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip, bringing the death toll in Israel’s ground offensive against the terror group since late October to 139.

The soldiers were named as Sgt. First Class (res.) Tal Shua, 31, of the Combat Engineering Corps’ 7071st Battalion, from Beersheba; and Lt. Shai Ayeli, 21, a cadet in the Bahad 1 officers’ school’s Gefen Battalion, who previously served in the Air Force’s Unit 669, from Ashkelon.

In addition, the military said a reservist and two other soldiers were seriously injured in battles in northern and southern Gaza.

Sgt. First Class (res.) Tal Shua, 31, left, and Lt. Shai Ayeli, 21, right, were killed in Gaza fighting, December 21, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Adraee’s announcement about evacuations came a day after the IDF said it had expanded its ground operation in the central Gaza Strip to new areas.

According to the IDF, its 99th Division maneuvered into new areas of central Gaza to establish “operational control” south of Gaza City and north of the so-called central camps of central Gaza.

During the operation, the division’s 179th Reserve Armored Brigade and 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade killed members of Hamas’s Nuseirat battalion and destroyed the terror group’s infrastructure, including tunnels and weapon depots, the IDF statement added.

The IDF also announced Thursday that it had established full “operational control” over Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, which saw some of the fiercest fighting during the ground offensive against Hamas and had dismantled Hamas’s “core capabilities” in the area.

It said dozens of tunnel shafts, found in homes, schools and health clinics, were destroyed along with caches of weapons. The IDF said soldiers in its Golani Brigade raided the homes of senior Hamas members and seized intelligence materials in Shejaiya, and the 188th Armored Brigade captured the headquarters of Hamas’s Shejaiya battalion, from which terrorists set out to carry out the October 7 onslaught in southern Israel.

The Paratroopers Brigade, meanwhile, demolished more than 100 buildings used by Hamas in the area, as well as located dozens of tunnel shafts, and arrested many operatives who had surrendered, among them a Hamas company commander and terrorists who participated in the October 7 massacres, the IDF said.

This image from a video shows a tunnel network under Gaza City’s Palestine Square being demolished, December 21, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Palestinian terrorists also fired dozens of rockets at southern and central Israel on Thursday, putting a violent end to a period of nearly two days in which no projectiles were shot at the country from Gaza as the war on terror group Hamas continues.

The salvo on central Israel Thursday punctured the hope that the military’s offensive has damaged Gazan terrorists’ ability to fire rockets. The IDF has still been warning civilians to follow the Home Front Command’s emergency instructions, even as rocket fire from Gaza has slowed significantly as the war progresses.

Also on Thursday, the IDF announced on Thursday that it had demolished a major Hamas tunnel network hidden under Gaza City’s Palestine Square.

According to the military, Hamas’s most senior officials hid underground in the tunnel network when the terror group launched its October 7 onslaught on southern Israel.

Israel launched its vast military operation against Hamas following the terror group’s murderous invasion of southern Israel on October 7, in which it killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another 240 hostages into Gaza. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry claims more than 20,000 people have been killed in the Strip during the war, an unverified figure, while Israel says that around 40 percent of them are Hamas terror operatives.

The IDF said Thursday that more than 2,000 Hamas operatives alone have been killed since the end of the temporary ceasefire in Gaza on December 1. This brings the military’s estimates of Hamas fighters killed in the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the war to around 8,000. Another 1,000 Hamas terrorists were killed in Israel on October 7, during the terror group’s onslaught.

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