An Israeli special forces operation deep inside the Gaza Strip on Sunday night that sparked hours of clashes and left one senior IDF officer dead, along with seven Palestinian terrorists, was not an assassination raid but an intelligence-gathering mission that went awry, the army said Monday.
“The action was for intelligence purposes, not for an assassination or a kidnapping. It was planned despite the efforts to reach a [ceasefire] arrangement,” IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis said told Army Radio.
“IDF troops that operated last night in the Gaza Strip became trapped in a highly complex situation. The soldiers acted heroically, hit those who threatened them and extracted themselves to Israeli territory,” Manelis said in a statement.
The spokesperson also told Army Radio that both the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas were investigating the previous night’s altercation. Tensions in southern Israel remained tense following the clash, with schools ordered closed and farmers kept away from their fields.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot praised the lieutenant colonel who was killed in the raid, saying “the IDF owes more to Lt. Col. ‘Mem’ than I can say.”
“Mem,” who could only be identified by the first Hebrew letter of his first name, was a 41-year-old father of two. His name and other personal details could not be published under order of the military censor.
The lieutenant colonel was due to be buried at a closed ceremony in his hometown at 3 p.m. on Monday, the army said. Druze Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara was expected to represent the government at the funeral. The military said the funeral would be held privately in order to maintain the secrecy of the officer’s identity.
The military insisted that the officer’s name and photograph could not be published as to do so would jeopardize national security, though some Israeli officials shared the information on social media despite the ban.
For instance, Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich shared a blurred photograph of the officer with his two children and described his family’s heritage. Her office denied that this was a violation of the gag, despite the military censor saying otherwise.
The army chief said the operation was “of the utmost importance to the security of Israel” and lauded the special forces unit and the air force for fighting “bravely, coolly and heroically.”
Following Sunday night’s clashes, the Israeli military sent additional troops to the Gaza region.
“The IDF reinforced its troops in the Southern Command and is prepared to use large amounts of force if necessary,” the army said in a statement Monday.
Most details of the raid remained subject to a military censor and could not be published.
On Sunday night, a special forces unit traveled several kilometers into the Gaza Strip.
At some point during the operation, the troops clashed with local Hamas fighters, killing a senior commander and five other members of the Gaza-ruling terrorist group. The seventh Palestinian killed in the clashes was a member of the Nasser Salahdin Brigades, the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, Hamas said in a statement.
The IDF unit called in aerial support — aircraft to bomb the surrounding area — and made its away out of the Gaza Strip.
On Monday morning, Palestinian media shared photos of the vehicle allegedly used by the Israeli special forces unit inside Gaza. The car was bombed, apparently by Israel in order to destroy classified or otherwise useful documents and equipment.
Photographs allegedly showing Israeli technological equipment that Palestinian media said was left behind by the soldiers when they made their escape.
— وكالة شهاب (@ShehabAgency) November 12, 2018
In addition to the IDF lieutenant colonel who was killed — identified only by the Hebrew letter of his first name, “Mem” — a second IDF officer was wounded in the firefight and taken to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center in moderate, stable condition, the hospital said.
The injured officer regained consciousness Monday morning, and was not in life-threatening danger, Soroka said.
According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, seven Palestinians in total were killed in the exchange and another seven were injured.
Following the raid, Palestinian terrorist groups launched at least 17 projectiles — rockets and mortar shells — at southern Israel. Three of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system. The rest fell in open fields outside populated communities, one of them causing light damage to a chicken coop in the Eshkol region.
There were no reports of IDF airstrikes in response to the rocket fire.
Hamas accused Israel of sabotaging an emerging ceasefire agreement that was brokered by Egypt and supported by Qatar.
Manelis said the decision to carry out the still-classified raid was not made lightly. “Actions like this are considered seriously,” he said.
The spokesperson also denounced people who had spread rumors and misinformation on Sunday night, including false reports that a soldier had been kidnapped — something the IDF was later required to explicitly deny.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been in Paris on an official state visit, cut his trip short and returned to Israel on Monday morning in an effort to salvage the ceasefire deal with Hamas.
Upon his arrival, Netanyahu received a security briefing from senior defense officials on the Gaza situation.
Meanwhile Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman continued discussions on the situation Monday morning with security officials at military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Residents of southern Israel were told to remain close to their bomb shelters in the event of reprisals Sunday night, with updated instructions early Monday allowing them to move away from protected spaces. Early Monday the IDF declared the area around Gaza a closed military zone and train lines south of Ashkelon were canceled.
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 by 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 said the methods used in the operation show that is was not 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. This was not confirmed by the IDF.
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.”
The flight paths into and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport were temporarily altered in light of the Gaza clashes, a spokesperson for the Aviation Authority said.
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.
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.
“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.