ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Toll of slain troops in ground op rises to 137

IDF says it’s fighting in new areas as it nears end of ground offensive in north Gaza

Spokesman says army now operating in Gaza City neighborhoods of Daraj and Tuffah, where one of Hamas’s last battalions stands; in south Gaza, top general says troops advancing

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

Smoke billowing after Israeli strikes in the central Gaza Strip, December 20, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Smoke billowing after Israeli strikes in the central Gaza Strip, December 20, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said on Wednesday evening that the military had begun to battle terror operatives in the Gaza City neighborhoods of Daraj and Tuffah, where one of the last of Hamas’s northern Gaza battalions remains, indicating the military appears to be nearing the end of its ground offensive in the northern part of the Strip.

“We have moved to fighting in Daraj-Tuffah. Daraj-Tuffah is adjacent to Shejaiya, and it completes [our operations] in Jabaliya, Beit Hanoun, Shejaiya, and Daraj-Tuffah,” Hagari said in a press conference, nearly two months after the IDF began the ground offensive against Hamas, which initially focused on northern Gaza.

The IDF has said it has operational control over Beit Hanoun, Jabaliya, and several other areas of northern Gaza, as it works to dismantle Hamas’s battalions. The IDF has also indicated that it will take only several more days to complete operations in Shejaiya, where some of the fiercest fighting took place.

On Thursday morning, the IDF said it carried out airstrikes against some 230 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip over the past day, while heavy fighting continued in northern Gaza despite the army indicating operations there were wrapping up.

In Gaza City’s Jabaliya, a school where civilians had been sheltering was cleared out by troops of the 551st Brigade, who found several weapons belonging to Hamas operatives inside, the army said.

The IDF also said that in the Shati camp on the northern Gaza coast, the 14th Brigade spotted a group of Hamas operatives and called in an airstrike.

Israeli troops operate in the Gaza Strip in a photo released by the military on December 21, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

The strike in Shati comes weeks after the IDF said it had full control of the area, indicating the military is still battling smaller Hamas cells.

The IDF is still expected to remain in northern Gaza for a long period after the main offensive, to continue dismantling Hamas’s infrastructure, including the terror group’s tunnels and caches of weapons.

Soldiers also pressed gains in south Gaza, where much of the fighting is expected to shift to.

In Khan Younis, the IDF said troops of the 7th Armored Brigade identified a group of Hamas operatives inside a building and called in an airstrike. A rocket launcher in the area was also hit as it prepared to fire projectiles at Israel, the army said.

The Navy also carried out strikes overnight, hitting vessels used by Hamas’s naval forces, the IDF added.

On Wednesday, the head of IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman said the military was at “another significant phase of the offensive, in new areas.”

“This offensive will continue and keep moving forward. It will continue with pressure against the enemy above ground and underground,” he said during a tour of the frontline in southern Gaza with the commander of the 98th Division, Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus.

“We will continue to advance here and in additional areas in which we have not yet maneuvered,” Finkelman added.

Head of IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman speaks to troops in the Gaza Strip, December 20, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Hagari in his Wednesday press conference described a Hamas tunnel network found hidden beneath Palestine Square in Gaza City, saying that “senior Hamas members managed the fighting on October 7 [from the area].”

“From this infrastructure, they were able to spread across Gaza. From the heart of Gaza City, senior Hamas officials were able to reach Shifa Hospital, leave there in an ambulance to travel south, and return to Shifa Hospital, enter the [tunnel] network, and go north to Rantisi Hospital,” he said.

Israel’s southern skies remained unusually quiet throughout Wednesday, without a single rocket attack from Gaza since 3:58 p.m. on Tuesday, a rare respite from the near-constant stream of sirens triggered by projectile fire from the Strip.

The 40-hour lull ended with a rocket attack on the Gaza border community of Nirim on Thursday morning.

The period of calm came as Hamas’s leaders were in Egypt for talks revolving around a possible pause in the fighting and the release of hostages held by terror groups in the enclave.

Large fusillades of rockets which were fired regularly during the war’s early weeks have faded as Gazan terrorists have seemingly run low on ammunition and places to fire from as the Israeli military presses its ground offensive in the Strip, squeezing Hamas and its allies. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said mop-up operations were taking place in northern Gaza, indicating the army had essentially conquered half of the enclave.

Israel has continued pounding sites in Gaza, according to Palestinian reports, with a number of strikes reported in Rafah and elsewhere.

People search through the rubble after an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 20, 2023 (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

Hamas’s media office in the Gaza Strip said Wednesday afternoon that the death toll in Gaza since the start of the war had crossed 20,000.

The number cannot be independently confirmed, and it doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants, whom an IDF spokesperson said earlier this month have been killed at a two-to-one ratio. Hamas’s toll also includes those killed in failed Palestinian rocket attacks.

Hamas says some 8,000 children and 6,200 women are among the dead. Hamas counts as children anyone below 18, while the IDF says many Hamas gunmen taking part in combat are minors in their late teens.

Israel says it is making an effort to avoid harm to civilians while fighting a terror group embedded within the civilian population. It has long accused Gaza-based terror groups of using Palestinians in the Strip as human shields, operating from sites, including schools and hospitals, which are supposed to be protected.

The war erupted when Hamas led some 3,000 terrorists in a devastating cross-border attack on October 7 that killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians. At least 240 people of all ages were kidnapped and taken as hostages.

Israel responded with a military campaign aimed at destroying Hamas, removing it from control over Gaza, and releasing the hostages.

A weeklong truce saw 105 hostages released until Hamas violated the terms of the ceasefire and fighting resumed. One of those released, a dual Russian-Israeli citizen, reportedly had managed to escape his guards but was eventually recaptured after spending four days trying to reach Israel.

Master Sgt. (res.) Uriel Cohen, left, and Cpt. (res.) Lior Sivan (Israel Defense Forces)

Families of hostages have repeatedly voiced their concerns that Israel’s military campaign, which includes intense airstrikes, is endangering the lives of those in captivity. They have urged the government to seek freedom for the hostages via a broad deal with Hamas.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the IDF announced the deaths of five soldiers who were killed during the fighting, raising the number of troops who have died since the ground operation in Gaza to 137.

Master Sgt. (res.) Uriel Cohen, 33, a logistics commander in the Givati Brigade, from Tzur Hadassah; and Cpt. (res.) Lior Sivan, 32, from Beit Shemesh, an officer in the Harel Brigade’s 363 Battalion, were killed on Tuesday; and Sgt. Lavi Ghasi, 19, of the Nahal Brigade’s 931st Battalion, from Hashmonaim; Lt. Yaacov Elian, 20, a cadet in the Bahad 1 officers’ school’s Gefen Battalion, previously serving as a squad commander at the Givati Brigade’s training base, from Ramat Gan; and Lt. Omri Shwartz, 21, a cadet in the Bahad 1 officers’ school’s Gefen Battalion, previously serving in the Paratroopers Brigade’s reconnaissance unit, from Shadmot Dvora, were killed on Wednesday.

This composite photo shows Lt. Omri Shwartz (L), Sgt. Lavi Ghasi (C) and Lt. Yaacov Elian. (Israel Defense Forces)

At least another nine soldiers were seriously wounded during fighting in Gaza on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the IDF.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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