The Israel Defense Forces deployed a limited ground incursion into Gaza overnight, sending infantry forces and tanks up to a kilometer into the northern part of the Strip, the military said Thursday morning.
The “targeted raid” appeared to be the most significant ground offensive into the Palestinian enclave since war broke out earlier this month, as the IDF prepares a full-scale invasion to eliminate the Hamas terror group that rules the Strip.
According to the IDF, the raid — led by the Givati infantry brigade and the 162nd Armored Division — was part of preparing the border area for the “next stages of the war,” referring to the full ground offensive promised by Israeli officials.
Troops struck “numerous” terrorists, infrastructure, and anti-tank guided missile launch positions, and “operated to prepare the battlefield,” the army said.
Soldiers returned to Israeli territory after the raid, the IDF added.
IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the operation lasted a few hours, and no soldiers were hurt. The troops operated within one kilometer of the border.
“Through the raid, we eliminated terrorists, neutralized threats, dismantled explosives, neutralized ambushes, in order to enable the next stages of the war for the ground forces,” Hagari said.
The incursion went beyond near-daily “localized raids” soldiers have been carrying out on areas near the border to search for bodies of missing Israelis and to clear the ground of explosives left behind by Hamas terrorists from the October 7 onslaught.
Those raids are carried out with smaller numbers of forces and do not go as deep into the Gaza Strip as Thursday’s raid.
Israel says its war against Hamas is aimed at destroying the Iran-backed terror group’s infrastructure and has vowed to dismantle the organization after the October 7 massacres, while minimizing harm to Gaza’s civilians.
Led by Hamas and carried out with other terror groups, the assault 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 at least 228 hostages of all ages, under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.
The IDF has been calling on Palestinians to evacuate from northern Gaza southward, as it intensifies strikes in the Gaza City area ahead of the expected major ground incursion.
In the past day, Israeli jets struck over 250 sites belonging to Hamas, including infrastructure, command centers, tunnels, and rocket launchers, the army said.
Navy forces also struck a Hamas surface-to-air missile launch position that was situated next to a mosque and kindergarten, in Khan Younis, the army said.
Israeli Air Force sources have said that more than 10,000 sites belonging to Hamas and other terror groups have been struck since the beginning of the war.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says the strikes have killed 6,546 people, mostly civilians and many of them children. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen killed in Israel and in Gaza, and the victims of a blast at a Gaza City hospital on October 17 caused by an Islamic Jihad missile misfire but which Hamas has blamed on Israel. Israel says it killed 1,500 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7.
The death toll on both sides is expected to rise significantly once Israel launches its ground offensive and begins entering cities. Troops are expected to have to contend with Gaza’s network of tunnels built by terror groups, booby traps and bombs, as they battle through tough urban environments.
Gazan terrorists have launched thousands of rockets at Israel since October 7, killing and wounding a number of people. Rocket fire on areas near the Gaza Strip resumed Thursday morning after an overnight pause.
Much of the area has been evacuated of Israeli civilians, but is filled with thousands of troops mustering near the Gaza border who have been waiting for the order to enter.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said Tuesday that the full ground offensive into Gaza had been delayed by “tactical and even strategic considerations.”
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Israel had agreed to a request from the United States to temporarily delay the planned Gaza ground incursion to give Washington more time to deploy additional air defense systems to protect its troops in the region.
The US was also reportedly concerned that Israel lacks achievable military goals for its operations in Gaza, leading to fears that the IDF is not yet ready for a ground incursion.
The campaign is also understood to have been postponed to allow for extensive internationally brokered negotiations with Hamas over the potential release of hundreds of Israeli and foreign hostages it is holding. Talks have resulted in four captives being freed — mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Ra’anan on Friday night, and elderly women Yocheved Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper on Monday night.
Addressing the apparent delay, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted Wednesday evening that the ground incursion is looming, but added he would not share when or how. He also said he would not share the range of considerations involved.
The prime minister said that the offensive’s aims are to destroy Hamas and to return the hostages, casting members of the terror group as “dead men walking.”
“We are preparing for a ground incursion. I won’t specify when, how, how many. I also won’t detail the range of considerations, most of which the public is not aware of. And that’s the way it is supposed to be. This is the way so that we protect our soldiers’ lives,” Netanyahu said, adding that there was a unanimous decision about the timing of the ground operation.
On Wednesday, Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, told a Lebanese TV station that “the battles have not begun yet.”
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.