ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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IDF says it nabbed some 90 terror operatives at north Gaza hospital, seized weapons

Army says weapons hidden inside incubators; commandos raid schools where gunmen were holed up

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

This handout photo distributed by the Israel Defense Forces on December 16, 2023, shows Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip amid the war against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)
This handout photo distributed by the Israel Defense Forces on December 16, 2023, shows Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip amid the war against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military continued its offensive against Hamas in the northern and southern Gaza Strip Saturday, amid ongoing rocket attacks on southern Israel and as the country continued to reel from the army’s accidental killing of three hostages and the growing number of hostages killed in captivity.

The IDF and Shin Bet security agency said that over the last few days, Israeli forces had detained some 90 terror operatives at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza, and seized numerous weapons.

The joint statement said some of those captured at the hospital, which allegedly served as a Hamas base, participated in the October 7 massacres in southern Israel.

Troops of the 460th Armored Brigade and Navy’s Shayetet 13 commando unit raided the hospital, locating weapons, including assault rifles, RPGs, explosive devices, and military equipment belonging to Hamas operatives, the IDF said.

The statement said Shin Bet agents and interrogators of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s Unit 504 questioned hospital employees, who admitted that weapons were hidden inside incubators in the maternity ward.

The IDF also released footage showing troops of the 188th Armored Brigade battling a Hamas gunman hiding in a tunnel shaft in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood.

Palestinian men surrender to IDF troops at northern Gaza’s Kamal Adwan Hospital, in handout image published December 16, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The helmet camera video showed soldiers surrounding the tunnel entrance, close to a school in Shejaiya, before a gunman opened fire from within. The troops were seen returning fire, with one of the soldiers dropping grenades inside.

The commander of the 188th Brigade, Col. Or Vollozinsky, said in a video statement that his forces encountered more than 20 Hamas cells in Shejaiya over the past week, and had killed dozens of operatives.

The IDF said soldiers of the brigade had also seized many weapons hidden in homes, schools and other civilian sites.

The IDF also said troops of the 401st Armored Brigade and Navy’s Shayetet 13 commando unit raided two schools in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood, where Hamas operatives were holed up.

The IDF said the troops battled and killed several Hamas gunmen in the area, and some inside the school surrendered to troops.

Meanwhile, troops of the Kiryati Brigade raided a number of apartments in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, used by Hamas. The IDF said the troops found “many” weapons and tunnels used by the operatives.

This handout photo distributed by the Israel Defense Forces on December 16, 2023, shows Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip amid the war against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)

Rockets were fired at communities near the Gaza border throughout the day, most of them empty since October 7. There were no reports of casualties or damage.

Overnight Palestinian media linked to Hamas reported intensive Israeli bombardments across the Strip, including the southern city of Khan Younis and areas in the north of the enclave.

On Friday the army said troops of the Commando Brigade’s Maglan unit were fighting Hamas deep within Khan Younis, including at one of the homes of the terror group’s Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar.

“In one of the battles, the troops operated above the ruins of one of [Sinwar’s] houses where he had lived in recent years, which was attacked from the air at the beginning of the war,” the IDF says.

The troops also raided the home of the head of Hamas’s rocket array in its northern Khan Younis battalion, and seized weapons and intelligence materials.

A blast is seen in northern Gaza’s Shejaiya, December 15, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Amid the battles, the army was still investigating the tragic events Friday when three hostages who had managed to escape Hamas captivity — Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Lulu Shamriz — were mistakenly identified as terror operatives and shot dead by soldiers in Shejaiya.

It said an initial probe showed the three were shirtless, and one of them was carrying a stick with a makeshift white flag. One shouted “Help” in Hebrew before being shot.

(From L-R) Hostages Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Lulu Shamriz, who were killed mistakenly by IDF troops in Gaza on December 15, 2023. (Courtesy)

In his first remarks on the matter, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said he bore responsibility for the “painful” incident and vowed to “do everything to prevent the recurrence of such cases.”

“The three hostages who survived seventy hellish days moved towards the IDF soldiers, and were killed by our forces’ fire,” he said. They “did everything so that we would understand” that they did not pose a threat.

He said the shootings were carried out in violation of open-fire regulations. “It is forbidden to shoot at those who raise a white flag and ask to surrender.” But, he noted, “this shooting was carried out during combat and under pressure.”

Shejaiya in northern Gaza has long been seen as a key Hamas stronghold, home to some of its most elite forces and heaviest fortifications. The area where the hostages were killed was close to the scene of a deadly battle on Wednesday where nine soldiers, including two senior commanders, were killed.

The military believes Hamas’s Shejaiya battalion’s command and control is largely disrupted, and the terror group is operating in the area in a less organized manner, with smaller squads.

A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during an IDF strike on December 15, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The military said that the soldiers who had mistakenly killed the hostages were receiving psychological care.

IDF forces have been battling Hamas on the ground in the Gaza Strip since late October. War erupted after the terror group’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages, mostly civilians.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas, and launched a wide-scale offensive in Gaza. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has claimed that more than 18,800 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war. However, the number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include some 7,000 Hamas and Hamas-affiliated terror operatives as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.

It is believed that 128 hostages remain in Gaza, not all of them alive. During a weeklong truce, Hamas released 105 hostages. Four hostages were released prior to the truce, 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 Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 21 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

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