The Israeli military deployed additional Iron Dome air defense batteries, as well as infantry reinforcements, to southern Israel on Monday, following deadly clashes with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip the night before in which an IDF officer was killed, along with seven Palestinian terrorists.
“The Israel Defense Forces 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.
Additional Iron Dome batteries were deployed in the south. The advanced air defense system shot down three projectiles of the 17 that were fired at Israel from Gaza on Sunday night. The other rockets and mortar shells were likely not intercepted as they were heading for open fields, not populated areas.
In addition, infantry battalions from the Givati Brigade were sent to the Gaza area as reinforcements, taking them out of their regular training schedule.
Though clashes between Israel and Hamas ended shortly after 1 a.m. Monday, the military remained on high alert out of concern for reprisals by the Gaza-ruling terror group, which said “the blood of our righteous martyrs will not be wasted.”
Israeli schools in communities near the Gaza border were ordered shut on Monday, and local farmers were forbidden to work in their fields.
Residents of southern Israel were initially instructed to remain close to bomb shelters or other protected spaces, but this directive was later rescinded on Monday morning.
On Sunday night, an IDF special forces unit entered the Gaza Strip on what the Israeli military says was an intelligence-gathering mission.
Most details of the special forces operation in Gaza could not be published by order of the military censor.
At some point during the raid, the troops were discovered by Hamas members and a firefight broke out, according to Palestinian accounts.
The Israeli team called in aerial support, which provided cover fire to the soldiers as they made their way out of the coastal enclave.
A lieutenant colonel in the special forces unit, who for security reasons could only be identified by the first Hebrew letter of his name, “Mem,” was killed in the clash. A second officer was injured and taken to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center in moderate, stable condition.
He regained full consciousness on Monday morning, following a number of surgeries throughout the night, the hospital said.
At least seven Palestinian terrorists were killed in the firefight and airstrikes, including a senior Hamas commander, according to Palestinian officials. Another seven people were injured, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
Following the initial clashes, Palestinian terrorists launched at least 17 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel, one of which caused light damage to a chicken coop in the southern Eshkol region, but no injuries.
Military and political officials lauded Lt. Col. “Mem” — a 41-year-old husband and father of two — calling him courageous and praising his contribution to the nation’s security. Due to the nature of Mem’s position, additional identifying details could not be published.
The lieutenant colonel was due to be buried in his hometown on Monday afternoon. Druze Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara was expected to represent the government at the funeral.
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 borde,r 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.
Palestinian media outlets reported that 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.”
On Monday morning, Palestinian media shared photos of the vehicle allegedly used by the Israeli special forces unit inside Gaza. The car had been bombed, apparently by Israel in order to destroy classified or otherwise useful documents and equipment.
صور للمركبة التي استخدمتها القوة الخاصة الصهيونية في ارتكاب جريمتها بخانيونس مساء أمس وقد قصفها الطيران الحربي لاخفاء الدلائل pic.twitter.com/3Kl63IBRym
— وكالة شهاب (@ShehabAgency) November 12, 2018
There were also 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
Hamas accused Israel of sabotaging an emerging ceasefire agreement that was brokered by Egypt and supported by Qatar.
But IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis said the decision to carry out the still-classified raid was not made lightly. “Actions like this are considered seriously,” he said.
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, the prime minister received a security briefing from senior defense officials.
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.
Weekly Gaza border protests, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have been taking place 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, as well as 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.