IDF destroys Shifa Hospital tunnels, accuses Hamas of using child soldiers

Fighting intensifies in central, southern Gaza; rocket sirens blare north of Gaza border after 15-hour lull; IDF probes strike on Red Crescent HQ that was said to kill 5; Blinken due

Smoke billowing over the Gaza Strip amid Israeli strikes on January 4, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Smoke billowing over the Gaza Strip amid Israeli strikes on January 4, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday that it had completed demolishing a Hamas tunnel network to Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, while the military continued to focus operations on the enclave’s central and southern areas.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military accused Hamas of using child soldiers, including to deliver explosive devices and to “assess the damage” on battlefields and report it to Hamas gunmen.

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 head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq exactly four years ago. The US and Israeli observers have said it is unlikely the blasts were Israel’s doing.

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.

On Thursday morning, sirens warned of incoming rockets in Ashkelon and surrounding communities near the northern Gaza Strip, after about 15 hours of silence in the area.

The Ashkelon municipality later said there were two Iron Dome interceptions over the city. No injuries were reported.

Rocket fire has drastically declined as the army has tightened its control over the Strip, but the military has warned that the terror group still has capabilities to launch projectiles into Israel.

Before blowing up the complex, the military on Wednesday released a new 360-degree video showing Shifa Hospital’s underground passages, which are smaller than the expansive Hamas command center Israel had initially declared was beneath the Strip’s largest medical center.

The IDF said hospital buildings above ground were not damaged.

According to the IDF, the tunnel branches under Shifa were around 250 meters in length and reached several sites used by Hamas in the area, describing them as used for terror purposes.

Israel’s combat operations around Shifa and other hospitals in the Strip have sparked angry denunciations from the international community.

Hamas “systematically operates in the hospitals in the Gaza Strip and in the areas adjacent to them, using the residents as human shields and exploiting the hospital’s infrastructure, including electricity and water,” the IDF said.

Troops also located Hamas weaponry within Shifa, as well as evidence showing the terror group brought hostages to the medical center following the October 7 onslaught, according to the army.

A US official said earlier Wednesday that American spy agencies have intelligence that Hamas used Shifa Hospital to command forces and hold some hostages but largely evacuated the complex days before Israeli troops entered it.

The IDF said Thursday morning that over the previous 24 hours, it had struck several Hamas anti-tank squads in Gaza.

In Khan Younis, the IDF said, reservists of the Kiryati Brigade directed an Israeli Air Force aircraft to strike three Hamas operatives attempting to plant a bomb near the forces.

The troops killed another two Hamas gunmen hiding in a nearby building, according to the IDF.

An IAF fighter jet also hit a Hamas weapons depot in Khan Younis, the IDF added.

Also in southern Gaza, the IDF said Hamas operatives fired anti-tank missiles at the 7th Armored Brigade, and a short while later, an IAF aircraft struck the cell behind the attack and the launch position.

In central Gaza’s Deir al Balah, the IDF said the 98th Division directed an airstrike on a building used by Hamas as an anti-tank missile launch position.

An IAF fighter jet hit the launch site, as well as two more buildings in the area where some of the operatives fled, it said.

The IDF said another Hamas operative who arrived later to search the area for weapons was hit in a separate airstrike.

In al-Bureij, also in central Gaza, the IDF said troops of the Golani Brigade located several long-range rocket launchers.

Meanwhile, the Navy continued to carry out strikes along Gaza’s coast, aiding the ground forces. The IDF said Navy strikes over the past day killed a number of Hamas operatives attempting to ambush ground forces.

Military investigates bombing of Red Crescent facility

Meanwhile, the IDF launched a probe into its bombing of the Palestinian Red Crescent headquarters in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis on Tuesday.

According to the Red Crescent, five people were killed and three others were wounded in the strike. At least 14,000 displaced people are sheltering in the building and a nearby hospital, it said.

In response to the report, the IDF Spokespersons Unit told The Times of Israel that immediately after the incident was reported, an “operational investigation” was carried out “to draw immediate lessons.”

“At the same time, the incident was transferred to the General Staff Fact-Finding Assessment Mechanism, which is responsible for investigating unusual incidents that occurred during the fighting,” it added.

A military source told The Times of Israel that Hamas’s use of civilian sites to fight Israel “is extensive and unprecedented.”

The source said entire neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip have been converted into “fighting complexes” for Hamas, which include “ambushes, command and control apartments, weapon depots, combat tunnels, observation posts, firing positions, booby-trapped homes and explosives in the streets.”

“Fierce battles against IDF forces have been taking place from these buildings since the beginning of the ground maneuver,” the source added.

Reporters view footage of terror groups’ use of children

Further proof of Hamas’s entrenchment in Gazan society was presented to international media outlets Wednesday.

In a briefing, the IDF showed reporters footage recovered from the Gaza Strip showing what it says is the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups indoctrinating young people into their terrorist ideology.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have for years openly run and promoted summer camps in the Gaza Strip where children undergo military training.

The IDF said at the summer camps, children learn to fire weapons, use tunnels, fight against tanks, and kidnap soldiers as part of early training for the terror groups’ military wings.

An undated image released by the IDF on January 3, 2023, showing Palestinian children playing on a mock tank next to Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. (Israel Defense Forces)

Citing intelligence, the IDF said “a large number of minors are active” in Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Even during the war, the Hamas terror organization uses minors for various tasks, for example sending children for the purposes of conveying messages and ammunition,” the IDF said.

The IDF said the interrogation of a Hamas commander revealed that the terror group had used children to deliver explosive devices under the guise of bags of vegetables.

It also said children had been sent by terror groups to battlefields in Gaza after an attack “to assess the damage and report it to the terrorists who are hiding in shelters.”

Israel’s ground operation in Gaza followed three weeks of aerial bombardments in the wake of the Hamas-led massacres on October 7, when thousands of Palestinian terrorists stormed the border into southern Israel and killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and kidnapped at least 240.

Israel declared war on Hamas in response, launching an offensive aimed at toppling the Gaza-ruling terror group and securing the release of the hostages. The ground operation initially concentrated on northern Gaza but has since expanded to the Strip’s south.

It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 23 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Another three people are listed as missing since October 7, and their fates are still unknown.

Hamas is also holding 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, as well as the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said Wednesday that over 22,300 people had been killed since the start of the war. Those figures cannot be independently verified and are believed to include some 8,500 Hamas fighters, as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. Another estimated 1,000 terrorists were killed in Israel during the October 7 onslaught.

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