IDF steps up fight against Hamas in south Gaza; UN says 80% of population displaced

Military death toll from ground operation rises to 84; US said to expect heavy fighting to wrap up in January, move to less intense phase of war

A pictured taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 5, 2023, shows smoke billowing following Israeli airstrikes amid continuing battles between Israel and the Hamas terror group, December 5, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
A pictured taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 5, 2023, shows smoke billowing following Israeli airstrikes amid continuing battles between Israel and the Hamas terror group, December 5, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Israeli troops engaged in heavy fighting with Hamas operatives in the Gaza Strip throughout Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning while striving to minimize the damage done to civilians and civilian infrastructure in the over-crowded southern part of the coastal enclave.

On Wednesday morning, the Israel Defense forces said that while troops engaged in fierce battles with Hamas on the ground, the air force had carried out strikes against more than 250 targets over the last day.

The 7th Armored Brigade directed airstrikes at two rocket launchers used to lob barrages at central Israel on Tuesday, the IDF said in a statement, and added that several Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives and their infrastructure were hit during air force strikes.

In northern Gaza, where the Kfir Infantry Brigade started operating for the first time since Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, troops killed a group of Hamas operatives near a school, the IDF said, adding that a destroyed tunnel shaft and weapons were subsequently uncovered in the area. Troops also found weapons in a school elsewhere in the northern part of the enclave.

The IDF also announced on Wednesday the deaths of three reservists.

Sgt. First Class (res.) Yehonatan Malka, 23, from Beersheba, a member of the 7th Armored Brigade’s 82nd Battalion, and Sgt. Maj. (res.) Adi Shani, 39, of the 6036th logistics unit’s patrol company, from Tzur Yitzhak, were killed fighting in Gaza, bringing the death toll of the military’s ground operation to 84.

The other reservist was Lt. Col. (res.) Yochai Gur Hershberg, 52, from Havat Philip, a commander of a unit in the 98th Division tasked with locating missing persons. He was killed in a military-related car crash in southern Israel.

This composite photo shows Lt. Col. (res.) Yochai Gur Hershberg (R), Sgt. First Class (res.) Yehonatan Malka (C) and Sgt. Maj. (res.) Adi Shani, who the Israel Defense Forces announced were killed on December 6, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Tuesday evening, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari pointed to the fighting in Khan Younis as proof that Israel was operating within the boundaries of international law in efforts to protect the large number of civilians in southern Gaza.

“We are proving that our forces are surrounding the center of Khan Younis while respecting international law… we are showing the world that we can do this, simultaneous with humanitarian efforts,” he said.

“This will allow us to manage the fighting over time. To strike a terrorist group that uses civilians as human shields, and hides underground, we need time.”

The IDF believes that much of the Hamas leadership is hiding in Khan Younis after fleeing northern Gaza earlier in the war, and that many of the hostages Hamas seized on October 7 are being held there as well.

The number of hostages believed to still be held in Gaza was raised from 137 to 138 people after military intelligence concluded that one of the people who had been declared missing since the Hamas onslaught on October 7 is a hostage. The number includes two Israeli civilians who entered the coastal enclave of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively — Avera Mengistu, a Jew of Ethiopian origin, and Hisham Al-Sayed, a Bedouin Muslim — as well as the bodies of two soldiers killed in 2014, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

Of the estimated 240 hostages taken by Hamas during its massacre, 110 were released during a seven-day temporary ceasefire last week before Hamas broke the truce on Friday and the fighting resumed.

Calling those taken hostage by Hamas “heroes,” Hagari said on Tuesday night that they “acted courageously, both before and after [being released]. They fought cowardly, vile terrorists who took children and women hostage in Gaza.”

Palestinians are seen at a temporary camp set up for people who were evacuated from their homes near the Egyptian border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on December 5, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

While Hagari warned that the military is expecting a “long war” in Gaza, the US is reported to believe that Israel could wrap up large-scale military operations in the southern Gaza Strip by January, and then shift to more targeted attacks on specific Hamas terrorists and leaders.

Citing multiple senior US administration officials, CNN on Tuesday night said that the White House is concerned about how the IDF’s offensive will play out in the coming weeks and has warned Israel to limit damage and civilian casualties.

A senior official quoted in the report said they aren’t comfortable using the word “receptive” to describe Israel’s response to the US advice.

A senior administration official also said Israel appears unlikely to achieve its objective of preventing Hamas from being able to carry out another attack like that of October 7 by the end of the year, and that instead, forces will continue to pursue that goal as part of a “longer-term campaign” when the fighting evolves into a new phase.

“We are in a high-intensity operation in the coming weeks, then probably moving to a low-intensity mode,” an Israeli official told CNN, confirming the expected transition.

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Israel’s war cabinet that it likely doesn’t have months to fight Hamas, as domestic and international pressure mounts on President Joe Biden’s administration to end the war.

On Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to expected US pressure on Israel to end the fighting in the near future.

Addressing “our friends in the world who are pressing for a fast end to the war,” Netanyahu said that “the only way for us to end the war, and end it quickly, is to use crushing force against Hamas — crushing force in order to destroy it.”

He also lauded the IDF’s achievements in the Gaza Strip, and claimed that Israel has killed “about half of Hamas’s battalion commanders.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) and Minister Benny Gantz deliver remarks on December 5, 2023. (Screen capture: PMO)

The terror group is understood to have some 24 battalions fighting in Gaza.

“We are settling accounts with all those who kidnapped, participated, murdered, slaughtered, raped and burned the daughters of our people. We will not forget and we will not forgive,” he said.

As the ground operation has proceeded in the past days, he said, “the ground shook” in Khan Younis and Jabaliya — “we surrounded both… There is nowhere we do not get to.”

The IDF and Shin Bet security agency revealed previously unseen footage on Tuesday evening that showed senior Hamas commanders inside the terror group’s tunnels in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.

The image depicted the senior command of Hamas’s northern Gaza brigade sitting in a narrow room around a table of food, which it said was taken several months ago. Though fitted with tile floors and wall outlets, an arch in the back can be seen indicating that the room is part of Hamas’s vast underground network.

This image obtained by the Israel Defense Forces depicts commanders of Hamas’s northern Gaza brigade in a tunnel. The photo was released by the IDF and Shin Bet on December 5, 2023. (Courtesy)

According to the IDF, five of those in the picture were killed in Israeli airstrikes since the war began, including Wael Rajab, the deputy commander of Hamas’s northern Gaza brigade.

Another video released showed Rajab walking through a tunnel in the Strip.

The IDF said the footage was obtained from findings seized in the Gaza Strip by troops and analyzed by the Military Intelligence Directorate.

Meanwhile, the widening air and ground offensive in southern Gaza has displaced tens of thousands more Palestinians and worsened the enclave’s dire humanitarian conditions, as the United Nations reported that 1.87 million people — more than 80% of Gaza’s population — have been driven from their homes since October 7.

The UN warned on Tuesday night that limited humanitarian aid is being delivered to the Rafah region in southern Gaza because of the intense hostilities, and that all telecom services have shut down due to cuts in the main fiber routes.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that only 100 aid trucks with humanitarian supplies and 69,000 liters of fuel entered Gaza from Egypt on Monday, about the same amount as Sunday.

That is well below the daily average of 170 trucks and 110,000 liters of fuel that entered Gaza during the humanitarian pause of November 24-30, he said.

Dujarric quoted Lynn Hastings, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the Palestinian territories, saying, “Shelters have no capacity, the health system is on its knees, and there is a lack of clean drinking water, no proper sanitation and poor nutrition.”

Palestinians fleeing the Israeli ground offensive against Hamas arrive in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

On X, COGAT, the Israeli body that coordinated the aid deliveries, quoted Hastings’s claim that the conditions for the delivery of aid do not exist, publishing a picture showing a line of dozens of trucks outside the Strip.

“The conditions required to deliver aid to the people of Gaza exist. We’ve completed all the necessary logistics to make it happen. Now, the #UN has to keep up,” it wrote.

Dujarric said that there are no safe places in Gaza and that “those places that fly the UN flag are not safe either.” The main telecommunication provider in Gaza announced the shutdown of all telecom services Monday night, he noted.

Israel’s war with Hamas was triggered by the terror group’s deadly onslaught on October 7. Thousands of Hamas-led terrorists poured into southern Israel from the land, air, and sea, unleashing terror across more than 20 communities, killing more than 1,200 people, including around 360 people who were mown down at an outdoor music festival, and taking some 240 hostage.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip, which the terror group has ruled since 2007, and launched an aerial campaign and subsequent ground offensive.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip has said that Israel has killed more than 16,000 people so far, most of them women and children. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, and people killed as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

According to military estimates, some 5,000 Hamas members have been killed in the Gaza Strip, in addition to more than 1,000 terrorists killed in Israel during and immediately after the October 7 onslaught.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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