ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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IDF stepping up strikes to create ‘best conditions’ for ‘next phase of war’ on Hamas

Military spokesperson says Israel ‘strong on defense, offense’ in north amid Hezbollah attacks, but ‘main mission’ is Gaza; IDF chief says Hamas readying surprises and so is Israel

Merkava tanks roll into position outside Kibbutz Be'eri, near the border with the Gaza Strip on October 20, 2023. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)
Merkava tanks roll into position outside Kibbutz Be'eri, near the border with the Gaza Strip on October 20, 2023. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

The Israeli military is preparing to immediately step up its strikes in the Gaza Strip to increase pressure on the Hamas terror group, which rules the coastal enclave, following its brutal October 7 assault on Israel.

IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Saturday night that Israel was planning to enter “the next phase of the war in the best conditions [for us], not according to what anyone tells us.”

“From today, we are increasing the strikes and minimizing the danger,” Hagari said in a televised press conference.

Israel says its offensive against Hamas is aimed at destroying the Iran-backed terror group’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire organization after the October 7 massacres led by Hamas and carried out with other terror groups saw some 2,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air, and sea, killing some 1,400 people and seizing hostages of all ages under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men, women, children, and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 people were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what US President Joe Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”

The invading terrorists also abducted more than 200 people, taking them to the Gaza Strip, and have been holding them hostage since. On Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces said the families of 210 hostages have been notified that their loved ones are being held in the Gaza Strip, but that the number was not final as the military is investigating new information on those still missing.

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hold up photographs of their abducted relatives, at “Hostage Square,” outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Two American-Israeli hostages — mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan — were released on Friday evening.

Israel says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates in Gaza with airstrikes and artillery fire, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

The IDF said earlier Saturday that it was continuing to prepare for a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip with “plans for the expansion of the fighting” being approved in recent days, but that it would only begin when the conditions suit Israel.

Troops were “conducting training in accordance with the approved operational plans,” the IDF said in a statement, releasing footage of live-fire drills.

The IDF has in recent days deployed tens of thousands of troops to the Gaza border, ahead of a major ground incursion that officials have said will begin “soon.”

Israeli soldiers work on a tank at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The military has also been responding to attacks from Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, and allied Palestinian factions in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for several missile attacks on IDF positions and Israeli towns on Saturday and over the past two weeks, amid concerns in Israel of a northern front opening alongside the war with Hamas in the south.

Hagari said Saturday that Israel was “strong on defense and offense” on its northern borders but clarified that the “main mission is Gaza.”

“That’s where Hamas is, and it’s where our abducted nationals are, and we are focused on Gaza,” he said.

Hagari said the “main effort is the elimination of terrorists, and primarily those who were involved in the massacre on Shabbat two weeks ago. We are continuing to take out terror targets ahead of the next phase of the war.”

Labeling Hamas as “worse than Daesh [the Islamic State terror group],” Hagari said Hamas “infiltrated Israel and slaughtered, raped, murdered, burned, and killed babies, women, kids, elderly people, Arabs… all Israelis. Whoever they saw, they killed… foreign language speakers, Muslims, they killed. They committed crimes against humanity and abducted into Gaza babies, kids, women, disabled people, elderly people, unwell people, and they are holding them now in the Strip.”

“The world must not forget that Hamas committed and is committing crimes against humanity,” he said.

IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari gives a statement on October 17, 2023, saying that the Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad was responsible for a rocket misfire that hit a hospital in the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds. (Screenshot)

“Hamas launched this war, not Israel. It is hiding behind civilians in Gaza and wants its residents to die to gain admiration in the world,” he added.

Amid the continued rocket fire on Israeli cities, Hagari said about 550 of the thousands of rockets fired by Gaza-based terror organizations at Israel have fallen short inside the enclave since the beginning of the war on October 7 and “are killing Gazan residents.”

He reiterated that Hamas intentionally fires rockets from civilian buildings and sites to provoke an Israeli response.

Ahead of the looming ground invasion, the Israeli military has told civilians living in north Gaza to move to the southern part of the enclave, an order reiterated by Hagari on Saturday.

Earlier, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi told commanders in the Golani infantry brigade that they should expect surprises prepared by terror groups when they enter the Gaza Strip in the upcoming ground offensive, but that the IDF has also prepared some of its own.

“We will enter the Gaza Strip. We will begin an operational and professional mission to destroy the Hamas operatives, the Hamas infrastructure, and we will also keep in our minds the images, the scenes and the fallen from Shabbat two weeks ago,” Halevi said, referring to the Hamas massacres on October 7.

“Gaza is complex, Gaza is dense, the enemy is preparing a lot of things there, but we are preparing things for them as well,” Halevi added.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks to Golani commanders at an undisclosed military base, October 21, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The chief of the Israeli Air Force also said the military, during the upcoming ground offensive, would be fighting Hamas as staunchly as it would had the last two weeks of heavy airstrikes on its assets had not taken place.

“I would not want to switch places with any enemy and meet a brigade or division of the Israel Defense Forces,” IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar said during a briefing with senior commanders.

“With the determination I see, I leave with a very strengthened feeling and together with the [Air] Force, there is a machine here that I have no doubt will work,” Bar said.

“Until now we have hit Hamas with thousands of airstrikes, thousands of bombs that hit precisely. Hamas is not starting from scratch now,” he said.

“However, we are treating it as if it was not harmed at all,” Bar added.

“We will enter with all of our power and hit [Hamas] as if it were fighting us on ‘day one,’” said Bar.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the war cabinet Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Minister Benny Gantz toured southern Israel earlier Saturday to see the military’s preparations for the expected ground offensive.

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