Like 'the aftermath of an earthquake'

IDF chief vows ‘in-depth’ probe of deadly blast caused by Hamas operatives’ RPG fire

Attack on building that was being rigged with explosives for demolition caused two structures to collapse, killing 19 reservists; another two in tank were killed by second missile

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

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and other officers tour the scene of a deadly blast in the central Gaza Strip, January 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and other officers tour the scene of a deadly blast in the central Gaza Strip, January 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

As the chief of the Israel Defense Forces vowed Tuesday to carry out an “in-depth” investigation into a deadly blast in the Gaza Strip a day earlier, which killed 21 soldiers, the military released new details of its initial probe of the incident.

The explosion on Monday afternoon, which collapsed two buildings on soldiers about 600 meters from the Israeli border, close to the community of Kissufim, was the single deadliest incident since the start of Israel’s ground offensive in the enclave and raised the military death toll in the operation to 219.

According to new details from the IDF’s investigation, Hamas operatives fired an RPG missile at one of the buildings while hiding in a nearby plantation.

The two buildings had been rigged up with around 20 mines for detonation, as part of the army’s efforts to establish a buffer zone between Israel and Gaza, which the IDF has said is aimed at enabling residents of Israeli border communities to return to their homes. The kilometer-wide buffer zone is thought to be aimed at giving the army a clearer view of the Strip to prevent potential infiltration attempts.

The RPG fire from a few dozen meters away likely set off the mines, causing the structures to collapse and killing 19 soldiers inside and near them, the IDF’s probe said.

An IDF tank guarding the operation spotted the Hamas operatives and was about to return fire, but before it managed to do so, the gunmen fired another RPG, hitting the tank and killing two troops.

Soldiers killed in the central Gaza Strip on January 22, 2024: Top (L-R): Sgt. Maj. (res.) Mark Kononovich, Sgt. First Class (res.) Israel Socol, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Adam Bismut, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Shay Biton Hayun, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Itamar Tal, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Daniel Kasau Zegeye, Sgt. First Class (res.) Cedrick Garin; middle: Sgt. First Class (res.) Hadar Kapeluk, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Matan Lazar, Cpt. (res.) Ariel Mordechay Wollfstal, Master Sgt. (res.), Elkana Vizel, Cpt. (res.) Nir Binyamin, Sgt. First Class (res.) Sagi Idan, Sgt. First Class (res.) Ahmad Abu Latif; bottom: Sgt. Maj. (res.) Rafael Elias Mosheyoff, Sgt. First Class (res.) Nicholas Berger, Master Sgt. (res.) Yoav Levi, Sgt. First Class (res.) Yuval Lopez, Sgt. First Class (res.) Elkana Yehuda Sfez, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Sergey Gontmaher, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Barak Haim Ben Valid. (Israel Defense Forces, courtesy; combo image: Times of Israel)

The Hamas cell then apparently fled.

The IDF is probing the security of such operations, as well as weighing the number of troops deployed close to and inside buildings that are intended to be demolished.

Following the blast Monday, a large number of troops from the IDF’s search and rescue units, as well as members of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, worked to extract the casualties from the collapsed buildings.

Rescue forces described the scene as reminiscent of “the aftermath of an earthquake.”

Several similar demolition operations have already been carried out in the Gaza Strip.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi issued a video statement on the incident, after touring the scene and investigating the blast.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, issues a video statement, January 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We share in the grief of their families for the heavy loss, and know that the pain is too great to bear,” Halevi said.

“If this is any comfort, I would like the families to know they fell in battle near the border fence, during a defense operation in the buffer zone between the Israeli communities and Gaza. This is a task whose entire purpose is to create the security conditions for the safe return of the residents of [the Gaza border communities] to their homes,” he said.

“To that end, we went to war, which began with a cruel attempt to stop life, and we are more determined than ever to bring life back here, even more strongly,” Halevi continued.

The chief of staff said he met with commanders at the scene of the incident, and was briefed on the initial investigation of the blast.

“We, as always, will investigate the incident in depth and learn the lessons while fighting, so that such an incident will not happen again,” Halevi said.

He warned that the fighting in Gaza will be long and have “many more challenges in store for us,” and therefore the IDF is rotating forces out of the Strip for R&R.

“On this difficult day, it is important to say we have been fighting for 108 days and we do not forget October 7, we do not forget why we went to war,” Halevi said.

He said the IDF over the past day has been “expanding the fighting in Khan Younis, gaining more achievements, and at the same time continuing to fight in the north of the Gaza Strip and deepening the achievement [there].”

“On this day, we feel the great and painful cost of war, but the one we are fighting now is necessary and just like no other. We will continue to fight for our clear right to live here in safety,” Halevi added.

Israel launched its offensive in Gaza after the October 7 Hamas onslaught in the south, where terrorists overran military bases, communities and a music festival, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, amid widespread scenes of horrific abuse. The terrorists also took 253 hostages.

Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released on January 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and free the hostages. However, three months in, the offensive has not yet achieved those goals and pressure has mounted within Israel to reach a deal with the terror group for the return of 136 people still held in Gaza — not all of them alive. International pressure has also intensified to bring the war to an end, amid the mounting Palestinian toll and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry said Monday that 25,295 Gazans had been killed so far in the war, an unverified figure that includes Hamas operatives as well as those killed in failed Palestinian rocket launches. The IDF says it has killed more than 9,000 Hamas members since launching the offensive. A further 1,000 were killed in Israel on October 7.

Israel has intensified its military campaign in southern Gaza in recent days, focused on the city of Khan Younis.

But many family members of the remaining hostages held by Hamas have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to the government’s strategy, saying the continued fighting is putting their loved ones at risk.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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