An Israeli special forces officer was killed and another was moderately wounded during a night-time operation in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, the army said. The incident sparked intense clashes between the Israeli military and the Hamas terror group.
At least seven Palestinian terrorists were killed in the firefight and airstrikes that followed the Israeli raid, including a senior Hamas commander, according to Palestinian officials. Six of the Palestinian fatalities were said by Hamas to be its members. The seventh was a member of the Nasser Salahdin Brigades, the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, Hamas said in a statement.
Israeli officials later indicated that the incident was an operation that went awry but not an assassination attempt.
The military censor barred news of the IDF officer’s death and the second officer’s injuries from being published for several hours until their families could be notified. The names of the soldiers were not immediately released.
The fighting set off a massive round of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, and by morning 17 rockets or mortar shells were fired at southern Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late Sunday he would cut short an official state visit to Paris and return to Israel immediately.
The flareup punctured a brief calm along the restive border, coming two days after Israel allowed Qatar to send $15 million in cash to Hamas in Gaza — one of the first moves in a reported ceasefire agreement between Israel and the terrorist group.
According to Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades commander Nour Barakeh was killed along with six other Palestinian terrorists by Israeli special forces who drove a “civilian vehicle” three kilometers into Gaza from the border or during the ensuing Israeli airstrikes.
Barakeh was reportedly closely involved in Hamas’s tunnel program and also served as the commander of a Khan Younis regional battalion.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Tal Russo, a former commander of the IDF Southern Command, indicated that the operation was likely an intelligence-gathering mission gone wrong, rather than an assassination attempt on Barakeh, as Hamas initially claimed.
“Activities that most civilians aren’t aware of happen all the time, every night and in every region. This action — an operation that was apparently exposed — wasn’t an assassination attempt. We have other ways of assassinating people and we know how to do it much more elegantly,” Russo told Channel 10 news.
The retired general, who until recently was responsible for the IDF’s missions abroad, also told Army Radio that Barakeh was likely killed in exchanges of fire amid an Israeli rescue effort to extract the special forces soldiers.
Palestinian media outlets reported the Israeli troops had initially tried to capture — not kill — Barakeh during the raid, but that the Hamas commander was shot dead after the operation was exposed. The Israeli military later denied this, saying the mission was not an assassination or kidnapping operation.
The Qassam Brigades said it engaged the Israeli commandos, setting off an intense firefight with Israeli troops, including reported intense drone strikes throughout the southern Gaza Strip.
The special forces squad was forced to retreat to the Israeli side of the fence under the cover of the aerial bombardment, Hamas’s military wing said in a statement. A Hamas spokesperson praised the “brave resistance that repulsed the Israeli aggression.”
Israeli military sources, however, indicated that the raid was not an attempted assassination against Hamas figures but a more routine intelligence gathering operation that had been completed when the troops were spotted and confronted, prompting exchanges of gunfire.
The Israeli military confirmed that “an exchange of fire broke out during security activities by the IDF in the Gaza Strip region,” but would not elaborate further.
Many details of the Israeli operation in Gaza could not be published by order of the military censor.
Quick recap so far: IDF operated in the Gaza Strip, exchange of gunfire ensued. All IDF soldiers back in Israel. Several alarms have sounded in Southern Israel. More to follow.
— Jonathan Conricus (@LTCJonathan) November 11, 2018
Following the clashes, at least 17 projectiles were fired at southern Israel as of 05:05 a.m Monday, three of which were shot down by the Iron Dome air defense system, the army said with no immediate reports of casualties.
Light damage was caused to a number of greenhouses in the Eshkol region, locals said.
Residents of southern Israel were instructed to remain close to their bomb shelters in the event of reprisals Sunday night. Early Monday the IDF declared the area around Gaza a closed military zone and train lines south of Ashkelon were cancelled.
There were no reports of rockets or mortar shells landing inside Israeli communities near the Gaza border. The projectiles not intercepted by the Iron Dome apparently landed in open fields.
The flight paths into and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport were altered in light of the Gaza clashes, a spokesperson for the Aviation Authority said.
Netanyahu was informed of the flare-up while in Paris on an official state visit.
“In light of the security-related incidents in the South, the prime minister has decided to shorten his visit to Paris and to return to Israel tonight,” his office said in a statement.
Culture Minister Miri Regev was appointed acting prime minister in Netanyahu’s absence; however, she cannot call a meeting of the powerful security cabinet as she is not a member of it.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has the authority to hold a special session of the security cabinet.
On Sunday evening, he met with top defense officials in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters, including IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot and the head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman.
According to the Gaza Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry, in addition to Barakeh, six other Hamas members, all in their 20s, were killed in clashes with the IDF.
Seven other Palestinians were reportedly injured in the clashes.
Israelis in the Eshkol region, across from Khan Younis, reported hearing multiple explosions as fighting broke out at around 9:30 p.m.
Roads immediately surrounding the Gaza Strip were closed in light of military activities, the police said.
Hamas’s interior ministry told Palestinian media that the terror group’s military wing and police force were put on high alert throughout Gaza, following the clashes.
The flare-up came as the sides were said to be nearing a deal for a ceasefire along the restive border.
On Friday, Israel allowed in $15 million of Qatari cash for Hamas to pay workers amid intensive Egyptian led efforts to reach a calm between the sides.
Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu said Israel was doing its utmost to prevent “unnecessary wars” in the Gaza Strip, but maintained that diplomacy was futile with the Hamas leaders of the Palestinian enclave.
At a press conference in Paris, where the prime minister had attended the 100th anniversary commemorations of the end of World War I along with other world leaders, Netanyahu said no final diplomatic deal was possible with Hamas — the ruler of the beleaguered enclave.
“There is no diplomatic solution for Gaza, just as there is no diplomatic solution for ISIS,” said Netanyahu.
“I am doing everything I can to avoid an unnecessary war,” said the prime minister, pointing to the deaths of millions during the First World War as an example of senseless bloody warfare. “I am not afraid of war if it’s necessary, but I want to avoid it if it’s not necessary.”
Weekly Gaza border protests, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have been going on since March 30 and have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks, bombings and attempted border breaches as well as the launching of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel. Southern Israel has also seen sporadic, but aggressive rocket bombardments from the Gaza Strip.
Over 160 Gazans have been killed in the clashes, dozens of them members of Hamas. The Hamas Islamist terror group, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, seeks to destroy Israel.
Egypt, alongside United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov, has recently played a key role in attempts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and the armed groups in the Strip.
Egyptian mediators have been working intensively to maintain calm, and also hope to bring about national reconciliation between Hamas and the West Bank-based administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
TOI staff and Agencies contributed to this report.