IDF says 2 soldiers killed, 4 seriously wounded during fighting in southern Gaza

800,000 civilians evacuate Rafah as Israel said to seek US okay for expanded op during visit by Sullivan; TV report: Troops find 50 tunnels used to smuggle in weapons from Egypt

Staff Sgt. Noam Bittan (left) and Staff Sgt. Nachman Meir Haim Vaknin of the Givati Brigade's reconnaissance unit, who were killed during fighting in the southern Gaza Strip on May 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Staff Sgt. Noam Bittan (left) and Staff Sgt. Nachman Meir Haim Vaknin of the Givati Brigade's reconnaissance unit, who were killed during fighting in the southern Gaza Strip on May 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday announced the deaths of two soldiers during fighting in the southern Gaza Strip a day earlier, as the military moved to further expand operations in the enclave and Palestinian terrorists there launched rockets at the south of Israel.

The slain troops were named as Staff Sgt. Nachman Meir Haim Vaknin, 20, from Eilat and Staff Sgt. Noam Bittan, 20, from Yad Rambam.

The pair served in the Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance unit.

Vaknin and Bittan were killed and another two soldiers and an officer of the Givati reconnaissance unit were seriously wounded as a result of a blast in a booby-trapped tunnel shaft in the Rafah area.

Their deaths brought the toll of slain troops in the IDF’s ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza and in operations on the border to 282.

In a separate incident, a reservist of the 5832nd Combat Engineering Battalion was seriously wounded in Rafah after his D9 armored bulldozer was hit by an RPG.

Troops of the 460th Armored Brigade operate on the outskirts of northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, in a handout image published May 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Their deaths came amid intense battles across Gaza. On Saturday morning, the military said the air force struck more than 70 targets throughout the enclave over the past day, as ground forces operated in Rafah, Jabaliya in the north, and the Netzarim Corridor.

According to the IDF, the targets included weapon depots, infrastructure, and buildings belonging to terror groups, as well as operatives.

One of the airstrikes in Rafah hit a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative, who the IDF said was head of logistics for the terror group in the city in southern Gaza. “As part of his role, he was responsible for preparing the enemy for the IDF maneuver in Rafah,” the military said.

In eastern Rafah, the military said troops of the Givati Brigade spotted and killed an RPG-wielding operative in a building near them. Givati troops raided several sites in the area, locating weapons, the IDF added.

Also in eastern Rafah, the Egoz commando unit located a rocket launcher at a building used by terror groups, the IDF said.

The United Nations said on Saturday evening that some 800,000 people have evacuated Rafah since May 6, when the IDF initially ordered some 100,000 civilians to leave the area ahead of a “limited scope operation.”

Once home to some 280,000 people, the population of Gaza’s southernmost city is estimated to have swelled to more than 1.5 million throughout the ongoing war, as civilians from across the Gaza Strip fled south to escape the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

A displaced Palestinian family arrives at a temporary camp in Rafah on May 17, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Israel has said that Rafah, where four of Hamas’s remaining six battalions are deployed, remains a major stronghold for the terror group. It also believes that many of the remaining 124 hostages taken during the Hamas-led October 7 terror onslaught are being held in Rafah.

“Once again, nearly half of the population of Rafah or 800,000 people are on the road, having been forced to flee since the Israeli forces started the military operation in the area on 6 May,” UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said on X.

“Since the war in Gaza began, Palestinians have been forced to flee multiple times in search of safety they have never found,” he continued, decrying the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian enclave. “When people move they are exposed, without safe passage or protection.

“Every time, they are forced to leave behind the few belongings they have:  mattresses, tents, cooking utensils and basic supplies that they cannot carry or pay to transport. Every time, they have to start from scratch, all over again.,” he said.

The designated safe zones to which civilians have been told to relocate “do not have safe water supplies or sanitation facilities,” Lazzarini charged, demanding “rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relied for all civilians in need, wherever they may be.”

The Rafah Crossing with Egypt, which has been a major conduit of humanitarian aid into the enclave, has remained shuttered since the IDF seized control of the Gazan side on May 7, as Egypt has insisted that it will not allow deliveries to resume until the crossing is back under Palestinian control.

Palestinians carry boxes of humanitarian aid after rushing the trucks transporting the international aid from the US-built Trident Pier near Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip on May 18, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

According to Hebrew media reports, Israeli officials will attempt to persuade the US to greenlight an expanded operation in Rafah when US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan arrives in Israel later on Sunday, fresh from a visit to Saudi Arabia.

Israel will reportedly present findings from the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of civilians from Rafah to argue that a full-scale operation against the Hamas battalions there would not cause significant harm to the population.

Washington said last week it had received assurances from Israel that it would not widen its operation before Sullivan arrived.

Meanwhile in Jabaliya in the Strip’s north, the IDF said, the Paratroopers Brigade killed several gunmen during several engagements; the 7th Armored Brigade located a primed rocket launcher and killed several more gunmen in battles; and the 460th Armored Brigade located several tunnel shafts and killed an RPG-wielding operative.

The IDF also said troops of the 460th Armored Brigade operating in the outskirts of Jabaliya located and destroyed a weapons and long-range rocket manufacturing site, along with other military equipment.

These images released by the IDF on May 18, 2024, show equipment and long-range rockets found at a weapons manufacturing plant on the outskirts of northern Gaza’s Jabaliya. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the IDF, the paratroopers have killed dozens of terror operatives during fierce clashes in the “heart of Jabaliya,” in neighborhoods that the military did not operate in previously, with drone footage showing soldiers killing two gunmen on a rooftop there.

Warning: Graphic

The IDF on Saturday evening called on Palestinians in additional neighborhoods of northern Gaza to evacuate the area, as it pressed on with its operation against Hamas in Jabaliya, which officers have described as some of the most intense fighting of the war.

The military first published an evacuation warning for Jabaliya last weekend and has since twice expanded the evacuation zone. The latest announcement included the areas of al-Atatra and al-Karama on the coast.

Palestinian civilians were instructed to move to shelters west of Gaza City.

In the Strip’s center, Palestinian media reported that some 20 people had been killed in a strike on Nuseirat refugee camp.

“We received 20 fatalities and several wounded after an Israeli airstrike targeted a house belonging to the Hassan family in Al-Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza,” the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital said in a statement.

Witnesses said the strike occurred around 3 a.m. local time. The IDF said it was checking the report.

In the Netzarim Corridor area, the 99th Division continued to battle gunmen, including by calling in airstrikes, the IDF said.

In one incident in central Gaza, troops of the 414th Combat Intelligence Collection Unit spotted a cell that had fired RPGs at troops and directed a drone to strike and kill the operatives, the army added.

In a later statement, the IDF said the 162nd Division’s 401st Armored Brigade raided sites in Rafah, where Hamas gunmen opened fire. The tank forces have killed more than 50 terror operatives in the area, and demolished some 100 sites, including rocket launchers, according to the IDF. The troops also located more than 10 tunnel shafts, it added.

IDF troops are seen operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated handout photo published May 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Givati Infantry Brigade, operating in the same area, has killed more than 80 terror operatives, the IDF said. The Givati troops also located tunnel networks in eastern Rafah.

The Kan public broadcaster reported on Saturday night that some 50 tunnels used to smuggle weapons and other supplies from Egypt to Gaza’s terror groups had been discovered in Rafah.

In testimony at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Friday, Israel’s legal representatives warned that these 50 tunnels in Rafah “could potentially be used to smuggle out of Gaza hostages.”

In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would need to take control of the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, which runs for 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) all along the Gaza-Egypt border, in order to ensure that Gaza is and remains demilitarized, to prevent weapons from being smuggled through tunnels into the coastal enclave.

Egypt has denied that weapons are smuggled to Gaza via tunnels, insisting that the measures it has taken in recent years — including the construction of a concrete border wall stretching six meters underground and topped with barbed wire — had put an end to the longstanding smuggling issue.

According to Egyptian officials, more than 1,500 smuggling tunnels have been destroyed over the past decade.

Amid the heavy fighting across the Strip, the IDF said on Sunday morning that one rocket launched from the northern part of the enclave at the southern city of Sderot was intercepted by the Iron Dome — the latest of a series of rocket attacks on the city over the past week.

On Saturday, terrorists in Gaza fired a barrage of some 10 rockets from the northern Strip at Ashkelon, according to the IDF.

The military said five rockets were intercepted, and the others struck open areas.

There were no reports of injuries or damage.

Ashkelon was also targeted on Saturday by a rocket launched from central Gaza, which the military said fell into the sea nearby, causing no damage or injuries. Sirens had sounded in the southern coastal city.

The war in Gaza erupted with Hamas’s October 7 massacre, when some 1,200 people were slaughtered — most of them civilians — and 252 others were seized as hostages by thousands of invading terrorists.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though only some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals.

The tolls, which cannot be verified, include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Two hundred and eighty-two Israeli soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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