IDF steps up Gaza airstrikes; 30 premature babies evacuated from Shifa Hospital

Israeli ground forces move deeper into Strip, raid Gaza City homes of senior Hamas officials; IDF ground operation death toll at 63; body of 12-year-old Be’eri girl identified

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Palestinian medics care for premature babies after they were evacuated from Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City to the Emirates hospital in Rafiah in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 19, 2023 (Mohammed ABED / AFP)
Palestinian medics care for premature babies after they were evacuated from Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City to the Emirates hospital in Rafiah in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 19, 2023 (Mohammed ABED / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces said Sunday that it had stepped up overnight airstrikes and ground forces began to maneuver deeper into the northern Gaza Strip, as the military’s death toll in the ground operation reached 63.

Fighter jets struck “many” Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip towns of Jabaliya, Beit Lahiya and Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood, the military said.

Meanwhile, the IDF said troops of the Nahal Brigade, with tanks and air support, battled Hamas operatives on the outskirts of Jabaliya as well as Zeitoun.

In one of the clashes, troops called in a drone strike on Hamas gunmen on a rooftop, and soldiers also recovered weapons in residential homes in the area.

At the same time, navy missile ships carried out strikes on Hamas sites along Gaza’s coast, the IDF said, adding that the navy aided ground troops with observation capabilities and firepower.

Additionally, the military said troops raided the homes of senior Hamas officials in Gaza City’s upscale Rimal neighborhood and battled operatives in the area.

Much of Rimal, once one of the Strip’s toniest neighborhoods, has been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes.

The military said troops have located some 35 tunnel shafts and dozens of weapons in Rimal and the Sheikh Ijlin neighborhood, and killed several Hamas operatives.

The forces also raided a Hamas military camp in the Rimal area, locating a weapons depot and seven rocket launchers, the IDF said.

The military also said Sunday that for the first time, one of the IDF Home Front Command’s search-and rescue-battalions, made up of male and female combat soldiers, was operating in Gaza.

Troops of the 498th “Shahar” Search and Rescue Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Yarden (whose last name is withheld for security concerns), joined the ground forces of the 162nd Division during the offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The IDF said the search and rescue soldiers had most recently been operating in Gaza City’s Shati camp with troops of the 460th Brigade.

The soldiers of the mixed-gender unit have been carrying out tasks “according to their expertise,” the IDF said, including searches for Hamas weaponry.

“The main unique skills are rescue and assistance if a structure collapses on our forces, and breaches. Our rescue equipment serves the maneuvering forces, certainly in built-up and dense areas,” said the commander of the Search And Rescue Brigade, Col. Elad Edri.

He said dozens of soldiers from the unit are operating in the Gaza Strip, and around 40% of them are women. “They do all the tasks that the men do,” Edri said.

During a recent raid by the Commando Brigade in a hotel in Gaza, where Hamas operatives were holed up, the 498th Battalion soldiers carried out a breach into an underground site, and discovered inside Hamas weaponry and intelligence materials.

In Shati, the search and rescue soldiers have been fighting alongside the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Battalion.

Yarden, the battalion commander, said the soldiers aided Nahal troops by breaching buildings to enable quicker progress through the camp. “We have tools that the troops don’t have,” she said.

The 498th Battalion includes engineers who have been advising ground forces on whether or not a damaged building is safe to enter.

Also Sunday, the IDF announced Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi approved plans for the continuation of Israel’s ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. The army said the plans were approved Saturday night following an assessment Halevi held at the IDF Southern Command in Beersheba with top military officials.

The IDF is currently operating on the ground in northern Gaza, but is expected to also operate in the Strip’s south in the future stages of the war.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (center) is seen at the Southern Command in Beersheba, November 18, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

At Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical center, many patients, staff and displaced people evacuated, Hamas health officials in the Strip said, leaving behind only a skeleton crew to care for those too sick to move.

The military has been operating around the hospital over the past week, uncovering what it has said is evidence of Hamas’s use of the site for terrorist activities. The IDF has said it was working to evacuate as many patients as possible from the compound, which it says has been used by Hamas as a command center.

The World Health Organization sent a team to Shifa to evacuate at least 30 premature babies on Sunday ahead of their transfer to facilities in Egypt, the enclave’s Hamas-run Health Ministry said.

Scores of other critically wounded patients reportedly remained stranded at the medical center.

There was no immediate comment from the WHO, and it was not clear if all the babies had been extracted.

This picture taken from southern Israel shows smoke rising above buildings during an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip on November 19, 2023. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

Israeli forces at the hospital uncovered an entrance to a Hamas tunnel and a cache of weapons, in addition to other findings over the past few days

“We see the presence of Hamas in all hospitals. It is a clear presence. They make cynical use of the hospitals, like here in the heart of Shifa,” Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, head of the IDF Southern Command, said on Friday.

On Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces said it had been asked by the hospital’s director to help those who would like to leave do so by a secure route. The IDF also said soldiers transferred over 6,000 liters of water and over 2,300 kilograms of food to Shifa.

On Sunday, the IDF announced the deaths of six soldiers killed during fighting in the Gaza Strip, bringing the death toll in the ground offensive against Hamas to 63.

They were:

Cpt. (res.) Roey Biber, 28, a team commander in the Combat Engineering Corps’ Yahalom unit, from Tzur Moshe.

Sgt. Binyamin Meir Airley, 21, of the Paratroopers Brigade’s 101st Battalion, from Beit Shemesh.

Sgt. Maj. (res.) Rani Tahan, 40, an operations sergeant of the 261st Reserve Brigade’s 8717th Battalion, from Sde Nehemia.

Master Sgt. (res.) Yakir Biton, 34, of the 261st Reserve Brigade’s 8717th Battalion, from Jerusalem.

Cpt. (res.) Adir Portugal, 23, an officer of the Givati Infantry Brigade’s Shaked Battalion, from Mazkeret Batya

Staff Sgt. Gal Mishaelof, 21, a soldier of the Givati Infantry Brigade’s Tzabar Battalion, from Modiin

It also announced the death of Maj. (res.) Chen Yahalom, 35, an officer in the Artillery Corps’s 8159th Battalion, from Kfar Azar, who died on November 18 in a car accident during a break from duty.

L-R: Maj. (res.) Chen Yahalom, Sgt. Maj. (res.) Rani Tahan, Master Sgt. (res.) Yakir Biton (Courtesy)

Additionally, the remains of 12-year-old Liel Hatzroni, who was killed in the October 7 Hamas assault on her home in Kibbutz Be’eri, have been formally identified, Hebrew media reported Sunday, citing family members.

Gas deliveries for Gaza approved

On Saturday night, the security cabinet approved the daily transfer of a limited amount of fuel into the Gaza Strip for humanitarian purposes, rubberstamping the decision made by the top-level war cabinet, officials told the Times of Israel.

The decision was unpopular with a number of members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline security cabinet. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Likud Transportation Minister Miri Regev voted against it, and Gideon Sa’ar from Benny Gantz’s National Unity party abstained.

Israel initially refused to allow any fuel into Gaza, saying it could be used by Hamas, but now says it has shifted its stance amid international pressure to avoid a humanitarian disaster with the breakdown of the sewage system.

Netanyahu said Saturday that allowing humanitarian aid to Gaza is crucial to continue the war, and that without it there would be less international support for Israel’s military campaign.

“Even our best friends would be hard pressed to maintain their support for us in the long term and that would make it hard for us to complete the war,” he said. “The IDF and the Shin Bet recommended that the cabinet accept the American request to allow two fuel tankers a day to enter the southern Gaza Strip.”

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid enter the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing on November 19, 2023, ( MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

At the same press conference, Defense Minister Gallant said the IDF was continuing to hit Hamas hard in the Strip and will also operate “soon” in the south of Gaza.

As the military secures its control over Gaza City, it has begun warning residents of the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis to evacuate, indicating that the ground operation will likely expand to those areas of the Strip in the days and weeks to come.

The military announced humanitarian pauses in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday to enable Palestinians to evacuate to the south.

The IDF’s Arabic-language Spokesman, Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, said on X that the Salah a-Din road was opened for southbound movement until 4 p.m., urging residents of the Gaza City neighborhoods of Jabaliya, Shejaiya and Tuffah to take advantage of the corridor to reach the “humanitarian zone” in southern Gaza.

“Hamas has lost its control over the northern Gaza Strip area and is trying to prevent you from moving south and protect yourselves,” he wrote, adding a phone number for anyone who needed assistance leaving.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry claims that 12,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war on October 7, including at least 4,700 children and 3,000 women. The figures cannot be independently verified and do not distinguish between civilians and terrorists, and also do not differentiate between those killed by Israeli airstrikes and those killed by failed Palestinian rocket launches.

The UN has warned that Gaza’s 2.3 million people are running critically short of food and water, and said the amount of fuel being provided is only half of the daily minimum requirement.

Israel has resisted calls for a ceasefire unless a significant number of the some 240 hostages abducted on October 7, including all women and children, are released in exchange. There has also been concern that an extended pause in the fighting would allow Hamas and other terror groups to regroup and prepare for the next stage of fighting, impeding the IDF’s ability to operate.

Meanwhile, rocket fire continued on southern Israel on Sunday, including toward the coastal city Ashkelon. There were no reports of injuries or damage.

The military has kept up  its efforts to counter the rocket fire, which has diminished considerably in recent weeks. Hamas is believed to be stockpiling rockets for a long war but also has growing difficulty in carrying out attacks amid the IDF’s ground operation.

Israel’s ground operation in Gaza followed three weeks of intense aerial campaigns across the Strip in response to Hamas’s shock October 7 invasion of southern Israeli communities under cover of thousands of rockets, when thousands of terrorists killed about 1,200 people, a majority of them civilians of all ages in their homes and people at an outdoor music festival near Kibbutz Re’im.

Agencies, Jeremy Sharon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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