Fierce battles continued to rage in the Gaza Strip Thursday, with troops fighting off a vicious overnight Hamas ambush, and the military saying it was using artificial intelligence to identify thousands of new targets belonging to the Palestinian terror group.
The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday afternoon announced the death of a senior officer during fighting in Gaza, bringing the military’s death toll to 18 since Tuesday, and 333 since the beginning of the war.
The army said ground forces and tanks clashed with Hamas terror cells in the northern Gaza Strip overnight, killing dozens of operatives, in what The Times of Israel has learned was an intense and chaotic midnight battle that raged on for over three hours following an ambush targeting soldiers from Golani’s 13th Battalion.
In a statement Thursday morning, the IDF troops of the Golani Infantry Brigade had taken part in “prolonged battles” against Hamas terrorists who had fired missiles, set off explosive devices, and hurled grenades at the forces.
The Hamas gunmen tried to ambush the Israeli force at midnight, emerging from tunnels and attacking them with anti-tank missiles, mortars, and drones. They tried to enter the armored personnel carriers and take control of them. More than 20 terrorists were believed to have been killed and several managed to escape, while there were no Israeli fatalities in that fight.
The military said the Golani troops fought back, assisted by artillery and tank shelling, and calling in an airstrike and missile strikes by the Navy.
“At the end of the fighting, dozens of terrorists were killed,” the IDF said.
The military said that troops of the Nahal Infantry Brigade also encountered a group of Hamas gunmen who opened fire at them, and directed an aircraft to strike and kill the terror cell.
Reservist forces, meanwhile, directed an aircraft to strike an anti-tank squad, with navy support, according to the IDF.
The IDF said it has continued to strike Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip, including weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, anti-tank missile launching positions, and drone launching positions.
Later Thursday, the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate said its so-called “targets center” had identified some 1,200 new Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing ground offensive that began last week.
The Military Intelligence Directorate is using artificial intelligence and automated tools to “produce reliable targets quickly and accurately,” the IDF said.
The IDF said hundreds of soldiers were working to produce new targets “on a large scale.”
A senior intelligence officer said that “in war, the enemy behaves differently and creates new opportunities.”
The senior officer said other new tools were being used for the first time to immediately provide ground forces in Gaza with updated information on targets to strike.
So far, the IDF said it has struck more than 12,000 targets in the Strip.
The operations haven’t come without losses to Israeli forces. The army has previously confirmed the deaths of 17 soldiers in or near the Strip since Tuesday morning, and on Thursday afternoon announced that Lt. Col. Salman Habaka, 33, the commander of the 188th Armored Brigade’s 53rd Battalion, from Yanuh-Jat, was killed battling Hamas terrorists in the northern part of Gaza.
Habaka is the most senior officer to have been killed during the IDF’s ground operation in the Gaza Strip. No further details were given on the circumstances of his death.
Separately, a reservist of the 679th Yiftah Brigade, a Givati soldier, and a Combat Engineering soldier, were seriously wounded in overnight operations in the northern part of Gaza.
Additionally, a soldier of the Border Defense Corps’ Caracal Battalion was seriously wounded in an incident on the Egyptian border. No further details were given on the circumstances.
Previously, 11 troops were killed when a Namer armored personnel carrier they were in was hit by an anti-tank missile. Two others died when an RPG was fired at a building they were in. Two were killed when their tank drove over an explosive device, another was killed by mortar fire on the border, and one died during clashes with Hamas gunmen.
The casualties underlined the threats soldiers are facing as the army shifts to fraught urban combat in Gaza’s crowded streets after weeks of a punishing air campaign. The urban combat zone is thought to be awash with bombs and booby traps and undercut by a vast network of tunnels used by terrorists to ambush or surprise troops.
Some of the fatalities came during a major IDF assault Tuesday on Hamas’s Central Jabaliya Battalion compound, located in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. Israel is battling to destroy Hamas and end its rule over the Strip after the group’s devastating terror attack earlier this month that killed over 1,400 people in Israel, mostly civilians.
According to a report Thursday by the Ynet news site, Hamas sent a group of 100 women and children to act as human shields to protect the compound.
“We are prepared for more incidents of such cynical and blatant use of the population,” said an unnamed IDF officer who apparently witnessed the incident.
The report did not say how troops dealt with the situation, but the compound was captured by the IDF.
Meanwhile, rocket fire by Palestinian terrorists appeared to taper off slightly, as terror groups presumably prepare for a long battle.
Among the targets on Thursday were Ashdod and largely evacuated Gaza border towns. There were no reports of direct impacts or injuries.
Also on Thursday, IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the military had notified the families of 242 hostages that their loved ones were being held in the Gaza Strip, up by two from the previous tally.
He said the number was not final as the military investigates new information.
The number does not include four released hostages — mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Ra’anan, and elderly women Yocheved Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper — or Pvt. Ori Megidish, who was rescued by the IDF on Sunday night, meaning at least 247 people were taken hostage on October 7.
There are still dozens more missing people whose fates are currently unknown. Out of the confirmed captives, it isn’t clear how many are alive. Hamas is also believed to be holding two Israeli civilians who entered the Strip in 2015, as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers killed in 2014.
Israel declared war, with the aim of eradicating Hamas, following the terror group’s devastating October 7 onslaught, in which civilians were brutally murdered or abducted from their homes and from the site of a music festival. A top Hamas official has said that given the chance, the Palestinian terror group would repeat such massacres again and again.
Meanwhile in Gaza, the Hamas-run health ministry has claimed that more than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, and more than 22,000 people have been wounded. The figure, which could not be confirmed, would be without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Hamas has been accused of artificially inflating the death toll, and does not distinguish between civilians and terror operatives. Some of the dead are believed to be victims of Palestinian terrorists’ own misfired rockets.
An estimated 800,000 Palestinians have fled south from Gaza City and other northern areas following repeated Israeli calls to evacuate, but hundreds of thousands remain in the north, including many who left and later returned because Israel is also carrying out airstrikes in the south.
Foreigners and dual nationals started exiting Gaza via the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Wednesday and this continued on Thursday, with Egypt’s foreign ministry saying it will help evacuate “about 7,000″ people representing “more than 60” nationalities.
Hamas authorities claimed Thursday morning that the power generator of the Indonesian Hospital in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip had gone out of service.
Gaza health officials have been warning that hospitals were in imminent danger of closing since the first days of the war.
Health ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qudra said in a televised statement that the Indonesian Hospital was running on a smaller backup generator but had to turn off lights in most rooms, shut down oxygen generators and resort to oxygen cylinders, and turn off mortuary refrigerators.
“These exceptional measures will allow the Indonesian Hospital to work for a matter of days,” Al-Qudra said. “However, if we cannot secure electricity or fuel then we will face a disaster.”
While some aid trucks have entered the blockaded Gaza Strip since the war began last month, Israel has not allowed trucks to bring fuel, which Hamas needs to run the ventilation and electricity in its vast tunnel network.
Israel says that Hamas has hundreds of thousands of liters of fuel that it could supply to hospitals and other civilians. The IDF on Wednesday released a recording of an intelligence intercept of a conversation in which a Hamas commander repeatedly alludes to Hamas taking fuel from Indonesian Hospital’s stocks.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.