Regarding the female hostages, 'we know why we are worried'

IDF chief: Flooding Gaza tunnels with seawater ‘a good idea’; Khan Younis surrounded

Halevi says military moving to ‘3rd phase’ of ground offensive, while working to prevent harm to Strip’s civilians; IDF fighting ‘justified war’ and ‘the world enables us to do so’

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

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks to the press from southern Israel, December 5, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks to the press from southern Israel, December 5, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi appeared to confirm on Tuesday a report that Israel aims to flood Hamas’s tunnel network in the Gaza Strip, calling it “a good idea.”

“We are seeing a lot of underground infrastructure in Gaza, we knew there would be a lot. Part of the goal is to destroy this infrastructure,” Halevi said in response to a question at a press conference, regarding a report in The Wall Street Journal.

“We have various ways [to deal with the tunnels], I won’t talk about specifics, but they include explosives to destroy, and other means to prevent Hamas operatives from using the tunnels to harm our soldiers,” he said.

“Therefore, any means which give us an advantage over the enemy that [uses the tunnels], deprives it of this asset, is a means that we are evaluating using. This is a good idea, but I won’t comment on its specifics,” Halevi added.

Quoting US officials, the Journal reported that the IDF set up five large water pumps last month near the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, which are capable of flooding the tunnels within weeks by pumping thousands of cubic meters of water per hour into them.

The officials said Israel alerted the US about the plan last month, but has not yet decided whether to implement it.

IDF troops find a tunnel shaft at the headquarters of Hamas’s northern Gaza brigade on November 22, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Speaking to the press, Halevi said Tuesday that the military was encircling southern Gaza’s Khan Younis as it launched the “third phase” of its ground offensive against Hamas in the Strip.

Israel has vowed to topple Hamas after Palestinian terrorists stormed across the border from Gaza on October 7, slaughtered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 240 hostages.

“After 60 days since the beginning of the war, our forces are surrounding the Khan Younis area in southern Gaza. At the same time, we are working to deepen the achievement in the northern part of the Strip. Anyone who thought that the IDF would not know how to resume the fighting after the truce was mistaken. Hamas is feeling this strongly,” Halevi said.

“In the last few days, many operatives, including senior commanders, were eliminated,” he said.

On Tuesday evening, the IDF released footage and a photograph showing senior Hamas commanders inside the terror group’s tunnels in the northern part of the Gaza Strip several months ago, and said five of those in the picture were killed in Israeli airstrikes since the war began, including Wael Rajab, the deputy commander of Hamas’s northern Gaza brigade.

Hamas commanders pictured in a Gaza tunnel several months ago, several of whom the IDF said on December 5, 2023, have since been killed. (IDF Spokesman)

Said Halevi: “We captured many Hamas strongholds in northern Gaza, and now we are operating against its centers of gravity in the south.”

“We are operating with professionalism, clearing the [Palestinian] population ahead of time from the combat areas. We are striking Hamas above and below ground, from the air, land, and sea,” he said.

IDF soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip in this handout photo published by the military on December 5, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The commander of the army’s southern command said earlier that troops were operating “in the heart of Khan Younis,” calling Tuesday the most intense day of fighting yet.

“They ask us a lot about the destruction in Gaza. Hamas is the address, [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar is the address. Our forces find in nearly every home weapons, terrorists. We understand that part of their way of operating is to leave weapons in the homes, a terrorist comes to the home in civilian clothing, and fights from there,” Halevi said.

“This requires heavy firepower, to strike the enemy and to protect our forces. That’s why they are operating with great power, but at the same time working to avoid harm to those who are uninvolved, as much as possible,” he said.

Responding to a question regarding the entry of aid to the Gaza Strip amid the ground offensive, Halevi said the IDF is making “great efforts” to ensure it is only fighting Hamas, and not harming the Palestinian civilian population.

A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 2, 2023, shows smoke billowing over the Palestinian territory during an Israeli air strike. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“Our enemy is Hamas, not the population in the Gaza Strip, and therefore there is humanitarian aid including fuel, which allows the hospitals, water pumps, purification plants, to prevent diseases that can spread,” he said.

“It is important to note that the State of Israel, and the IDF, are operating in a justified war, and we live in a world that enables us to do this, and understands our justified war. As long as we differentiate between the enemy and the population, we will be able to deepen our achievements, to fight more, find more [Hamas] commanders, to destroy more infrastructure,” Halevi added.

The rising death toll and unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza have sparked outrage in much of the world. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says Israel’s military campaign, in response to the terror group’s murderous attacks, has killed more than 16,000 people so far, most of them women and children. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, and people killed as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

According to military estimates, some 5,000 Hamas members have been killed in the Gaza Strip, in addition to more than 1,000 terrorists killed in Israel during the October 7 onslaught.

In his statement, Halevi said the IDF’s military pressure on Hamas has advanced the goals of the war, including the return of the hostages.

“We are doing everything to return the hostages,” he said.

Responding to a question on the well-being of the hostages, Halevi said the IDF is working constantly to find out information on the hostages.

“We don’t have full information of course. We are working to release them, and not to harm them,” he said.

“Regarding the female hostages, we have great concern for everyone who is held by Hamas. And we know why we are worried,” he added, in an apparent reference to claims of sexual violence against those being held in Gaza.

Protesters attend a demonstration for the release of hostages held by terrorists in Gaza since the October 7 attack, in Tel Aviv on December 2, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Though the army’s focus remains on the Gaza Strip, Halevi said operations were continuing in the north, where hostilities have also resumed since a weeklong truce ended on Friday.

Halevi said the military knew in advance that Hezbollah would resume its attacks. “We prepared for this, and we are operating with determination against anyone who is preparing or carrying out attacks on civilians or soldiers,” he said. “We are exacting a heavy price from Hezbollah, which the group tries to hide, it knows why.”

Halevi said the IDF was working to allow civilians to return to their homes in border communities in the north and south as soon as possible.

“We know we will need more forces on the border, better abilities… This is what we will do,” he said. “We will do everything to amend what was harmed. For the murdered, it’s too late. But for the living, for the continued living in Israel, these amends are necessary.”

Turning to an incident in Jerusalem last week, in which civilian Yuval Castleman was killed by a reservist who mistook him for a terrorist, Halevi said soldiers should not shoot at someone putting their hands up.

Staff Sgt. (res.) Aviad Frija was one of two off-duty troops who responded to a terror attack at a Jerusalem bus stop on Thursday, shooting at the two assailants but also at Castleman, an armed civilian who had also opened fire first at the terrorists.

Yuval Castleman. (Courtesy)

Frija, who opened fire at Castleman after he had put his gun down and was holding his hands in the air, was arrested Monday.

Halevi said the military shows its appreciation for Castleman’s “brave” action in taking down the Hamas gunmen. “This truly is heroism,” he said.

“At the same time, we emphasize the need to stick to the basic and required rules in complex situations like these, shooting in a civilian environment,” he said. “Do not shoot when the threat is lowered, and we do not shoot at those who put their hands up.”

He noted that the incident, during the Jerusalem terror attack, was still under investigation.

On the West Bank, Halevi said the military has seen major success against terror. He said more than 1,200 Hamas members have been arrested in recent weeks, and many others who were planning attacks, or had carried them out, were killed.

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