Ilan Weiss, was killed Oct. 7; his body is held in Gaza

IDF says 3 Israelis missing since October 7 are among Gaza hostages; 1 of them is dead

Number of hostages believed held in Gaza rises to 136; IDF troops kill Hamas gunmen in tunnels, detain operatives of elite Nukhba force; Gaza death toll said to pass 22,000

(From L-R) Idan Shtivi, Hanan Yablonka, and Ilan Weiss, who the IDF announced were among those being held in Gaza on January 4, 2024. (Courtesy)
(From L-R) Idan Shtivi, Hanan Yablonka, and Ilan Weiss, who the IDF announced were among those being held in Gaza on January 4, 2024. (Courtesy)

Three Israelis declared missing since October 7 were confirmed to be held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Thursday, as troops continued to focus operations on the enclave’s central and southern areas.

Hagari’s announcement brought the total number of hostages in the Gaza Strip to 136, including the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Hagari did not name the three, but family members identified them as Hanan Yablonka, 42, Idan Shtivi, 28, and Ilan Weiss, 56. Weiss was killed on October 7, and the terror groups have been holding his body.

Yablonka and Shtivi were both captured at the Supernova music festival. Weiss was believed killed fighting with the Kibbutz Be’eri security team that tried to ward off the terrorist assault. His wife and daughter were also captured and later released in a hostage deal.

The captives were taken during the Hamas terror group’s October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages, mostly civilians.

In response, Israel vowed to destroy Hamas, and launched a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza aimed at destroying the group’s military and governance capabilities.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said Thursday at least 22,438 people have been killed in the Strip since the war erupted on October 7. The Hamas figure does not differentiate between civilians and combatants and includes Palestinians killed by errant rocket fire from Gaza. Israel says it has killed 8,500 terrorists since launching the war.

IDF troops seen operating inside the Gaza Strip in this handout photo released for publication on January 4, 2023. (IDF)

The IDF said Thursday that reservists of the Kiryati Armored Brigade and 55th Paratroopers Brigade operating in southern Gaza had killed many Hamas fighters of the terror group’s northern and eastern Khan Younis battalions, and significantly damaged their command and control, preventing operatives from carrying out large-scale attacks on troops.

The IDF released footage of the two reserve brigades operating in the Khan Younis area, killing Hamas gunmen in tunnels and detaining operatives of the terror group’s elite Nukhba force.

The commander of the Kiryati Brigade, Col. Mickey Sharvit, said that in their area of operations “there is no innocent infrastructure.”

“We encounter terror in almost every home, in hospitals and schools. Our forces even eliminated terrorists who emerged from an underground [tunnel] in a school,” he added.

The IDF said the reservist troops located and destroyed a Hamas tunnel shaft leading to an underground passage of several hundred meters in the Khan Younis area.

Sharvit said some 20 Hamas operatives, including a company commander, were killed by the IDF inside the tunnel. The IDF said that five members of the terror group’s elite force escaped the tunnel and surrendered to troops.

The gunmen who surrendered told field interrogators that strikes on underground Hamas hideouts in the area killed many operatives, including two company commanders in Hamas’s northern and eastern Khan Younis battalions, according to the IDF.

The commander of the 55th Brigade, Col. Oded Ziman, meanwhile, hailed the “extraordinary” cooperation with the Israeli Air Force.

“As a brigade commander I never dreamed of such good and fast cooperation,” Ziman said, recalling an incident earlier on Thursday in which an attack helicopter provided air support within two minutes of radioing in the request.

Also Thursday, the IDF announced that it had eliminated senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Mamdouh Lulu in an airstrike in Gaza.

Senior Islamic Jihad official Mamdouh Lulu, killed in an Israeli airstrike on January 4, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

In a joint statement with the Shin Bet, the IDF said Lulu served as an assistant to the commanders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s northern Gaza division, and that he also maintained contact with officials abroad.

“Lulu was a central figure in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, initiating and leading numerous terror attacks and assaults from Gaza against the State of Israel, routinely and during the war,” the joint statement added.

In central Gaza, the IDF said Thursday that troops had uncovered and destroyed a Hamas underground weapons manufacturing plant on the coast of central Gaza.

Over the past week, troops of the 179th Armored Brigade, the Navy’s Shayetet 13 commando unit and the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit raided a Hamas compound, where they located several tunnel shafts, according to the IDF.

The tunnel shafts led to an underground network spanning hundreds of meters, the army said, adding that troops located a cache of weapons, including mortars, grenades and RPGs. Nearby, several more tunnel shafts were found by Shayetet 13 and Yahalom forces, which led to another underground network of branching tunnels.

The IDF said the tunnels featured blast doors, and behind them, the troops found a weapons manufacturing plant. The underground room had machinery, cooling fans, explosive materials and rocket fuel.

The tunnels were later destroyed by combat engineers.

During a tour of the central Gaza border on Thursday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Hamas fighters who are counting on the IDF to soon leave the Strip “need to change the count until the end of their lives.”

“In the north of the Gaza Strip, forces are completing the current mission. They are reorganizing with the intention of carrying out raids and airstrikes soon,” Gallant said. In central Gaza, he added, the fighting “is intense.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant tours the central Gaza border, January 4, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“The forces are working above ground and underground, destroying central infrastructures of the Hamas organization, including the places where Hamas produced all its missiles and supplied them all over the Strip,” Gallant said, adding, “Those terrorists who started counting down the time to the departure of the IDF forces, need to change the count, they need to start counting until the end of their lives on earth, it will come soon.”

Amid rising fears of regional war, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to head Thursday to the Middle East, his fourth trip since October 7, following deadly blasts in Iran and the killing of Hamas terror chief Saleh al-Arouri in an alleged Israeli strike in Lebanon.

Hezbollah and Hamas have vowed revenge over the killing of Arouri, while Iran has blamed Israel and the United States for the twin blasts that ripped through a crowd commemorating General Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq exactly four years ago. On Thursday, the Islamic State group took responsibility for the bombings.

Hostilities also threatened to expand to Yemen after the United States and its allies jointly warned the country’s Houthi rebels of unspecified consequences unless they immediately halted attacks on Red Sea shipping carried out in solidarity with Hamas.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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