IDF soldier killed as heavy fighting flares up again in northern Gaza

Military confirms large-scale operation launched in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood, an area believed largely cleared of Hamas gunmen; aid groups suspend food convoys to area

Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released for publication on February 21, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)
Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released for publication on February 21, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday that one soldier was killed and two others were seriously wounded as heavy fighting flared again in northern Gaza, where the military had previously said it had largely completed its main operations to destroy Hamas forces.

The soldier was named as Staff Sgt. Avraham Wovagen, 21, of the Nahal Brigade’s 932nd Battalion, from Netanya. His death brought the toll of slain troops in the ground offensive against Hamas to 237.

Separately, a soldier of the 932nd Battalion and a reservist of the 636th Combat Intelligence Collection Unit were seriously wounded by an anti-tank missile in northern Gaza.

The IDF confirmed Wednesday that it had launched a new large-scale raid on Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood, killing Hamas operatives and locating weapons in the process.

The IDF said the Israeli Air Force and 215th Artillery Regiment carried out strikes against dozens of Hamas targets in Zeitoun, including observation posts, weapon depots, and tunnels.

The 401st Armored Brigade then entered the neighborhood, raiding suspicious buildings.

Staff Sgt. Avraham Wovagen (Israel Defense Forces)

During the operation so far, dozens of Hamas operatives have been killed in clashes and in airstrikes, according to the IDF. The military also said troops have also found weapons in homes in the area.

Palestinian sources had reported heavy fighting and airstrikes in the past two days in areas of northern Gaza. The military on Tuesday ordered the evacuation of two neighborhoods on Gaza City’s southern edge, an indication that operatives were still putting up stiff resistance.

The operation in Zeitoun comes after the IDF said it had largely defeated Hamas’s fighting force in northern Gaza, withdrew its forces, and began to focus on smaller raids in designated areas.

Meanwhile, the IDF said that in Khan Younis, the southern Gaza city that has been the focal point of the offensive in recent weeks, troops were “deepening” the fighting against Hamas.

The IDF said the Givati Brigade led an offensive in new areas in eastern Khan Younis, killing many Hamas operatives in the process; the Paratroopers Brigade and Commando Brigade were expanding operations in western Khan Younis; and the 7th Armored Brigade directed airstrikes on two Hamas gunmen on a motorcycle.

In southern Gaza, a soldier of the Givati Brigade was seriously wounded as a result of an explosive device, the army said.

Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released for publication on February 21, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

The renewed fighting in northern Gaza comes amid growing international concern for the humanitarian situation in the area, which has been isolated since Israeli troops first moved into it in late October. Large swaths have been reduced to rubble, but several hundred thousand Palestinians remain there, largely cut off from aid.

They describe famine-like conditions, in which families limit themselves to one meal a day and often resort to mixing animal and bird fodder with grains to bake bread.

“The situation is beyond your imagination,” said Soad Abu Hussein, a widow and mother of five children sheltering in a school in Jabaliya refugee camp.

Ayman Abu Awad, who lives in Zeitoun, said he eats one meal a day to save whatever he can for his four children.

“People have eaten whatever they find, including animal feed and rotten bread,” he said.

Volunteers distribute rations of soup to displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 18, 2024 (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Exacerbating the situation, the World Food Program said Tuesday it has paused deliveries of food in northern Gaza because of increasing chaos across the territory.

Entry of aid trucks into the besieged territory has been more than halved in the past two weeks, according to UN figures. UN and relief workers accused Israel of failing to ensure convoys’ safety amid its airstrikes and the ground offensive, and have described a breakdown in security, with hungry Palestinians frequently overwhelming trucks to take food.

The World Food Program said it was forced to pause aid to the north because of “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order.”

It said it had first suspended deliveries to the north three weeks ago after a strike hit an aid truck. It tried resuming this week, but convoys on Sunday and Monday faced gunfire and crowds of hungry people stripping goods and beating one driver.

WFP said it was working to resume deliveries as soon as possible. It called for the opening of crossing points for aid directly into northern Gaza from Israel and a better notification system to coordinate with the Israeli military.

It warned of a “precipitous slide into hunger and disease,” saying, “People are already dying from hunger-related causes.”

Israeli officials said the failure of aid trucks to reach Palestinians across Gaza was due to aid groups failing to organize properly.

A Palestinian collects books after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Moshe Tetro, an official with COGAT, an Israeli military body in charge of civilian Palestinian affairs, said bottlenecks were caused because the UN and other aid groups can’t accept the trucks in Gaza or distribute them to the population. He said more than 450 trucks were waiting on the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, but no UN staff had come to distribute them.

The war began when some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists rampaged across communities in southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostages. They still hold some 130 captives, around a fourth of whom are believed to be dead.

Israel launched a ground offensive aimed at rescuing the hostages and destroying Hamas.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that more than 29,000 people have been killed. The figures provided by the health ministry cannot be independently verified and include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 12,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Four months later there has been little progress on efforts to secure the release of the remaining hostages and bring an end to the fighting.

The White House said Tuesday it was sending Brett McGurk, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, to hold talks Wednesday in Egypt and Thursday in Israel.

The talks were to be focused on trying to push ahead with a deal to free the hostages and to dissuade Israel from launching a planned offensive in Rafah.

Israel has rebuffed repeated calls to drop plans for the operation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city where over a million Palestinians are sheltering, many in makeshift tents. Israel says Rafah is Hamas’s last military stronghold and the terror group’s leaders and some of the hostages are likely there. The military freed two hostages from Rafah earlier this month

Also Tuesday, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said it had confirmation that Hamas started delivering medications to the hostages, a month after the medications arrived in Gaza under a deal mediated by the Gulf state and France. The deal provides three months’ worth of medication for chronic illnesses for 45 of the hostages, as well as other medicine and vitamins, in exchange for additional medicines and humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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