Military officials declared Wednesday that Israeli forces had breached Hamas’s first line of defense and were approaching Gaza City, saying the deaths of 16 soldiers this week in and near Gaza were a “heavy price.” On Thursday morning, the death of a 17th serviceman was announced.
Meanwhile, the military continued to pound the Strip and eliminated the commander of the terror group’s anti-tank missile array.
Israel Defense Forces spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said that “with advance planning, precise intelligence and joint attacks [from the land, air and sea], our forces broke through Hamas’s front lines of defense in the north of the Gaza Strip.”
Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, the commander of the IDF’s 162nd Division, said Israeli forces had advanced deep into Gaza and were “at the gates of Gaza City.”
Cohen, speaking to reporters near the Strip, said that over the past five days, “we have destroyed much of Hamas’s capabilities, attacked its strategic facilities, all of its array of explosives, its underground tunnels and other facilities we completely destroyed.”
However, he cautioned that it was a “long task” and much work remained.
Israeli air power continued to provide cover for troops and tanks battling inside the enclave. In one of its airstrikes Wednesday, the IDF said it killed the commander of Hamas’s anti-tank guided missile array, Muhammad A’sar.
According to the military, A’sar was “responsible for all of Hamas’s anti-tank missile units throughout the Gaza Strip, commanded the units in routine times, and assisted their activity in emergencies.”
The military published a video showing the airstrike.
צה״ל בהכוונת מודיעין אמ"ן ושב"כ, חיסל את מחמד עצאר, ראש מערך הנ״ט של ארגון הטרור חמאס באמצעות מטוס קרב. במסגרת תפקידו, עצאר היה אחראי על כלל מערכי הנ״ט בחטיבות השונות ברצועת עזה, ניהל את הכוח בשגרה וסייע בהפעלתו בחירום >> pic.twitter.com/DdTi33x0zL
— צבא ההגנה לישראל (@idfonline) November 1, 2023
The IDF said that under his command, numerous missile attacks had been carried out against Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers.
One such missile killed 11 soldiers in a Namer armored personnel carrier in Gaza on Tuesday. Two other Israeli troops died when an RPG was fired at a building they were in.
Two more soldiers were killed when their tank drove over an explosive device on Tuesday, and another was killed by mortar fire on the border on Wednesday, bringing the military’s death toll since Tuesday morning to 16.
On Thursday morning, the IDF announced the additional death of reserve infantryman Lt. (res) Yuval Zilber, 25, of Ramat Gan, a company commander in the Jerusalem Brigade’s 7007th Battalion.
Zilber was killed in clashes with Hamas gunmen on Wednesday, the army said. No further details were immediately given.
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.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said in a missive to troops Wednesday that the “heavy and painful price” being paid during the war against Hamas was “necessary.”
“We are in the midst of a war. It will be a long war and we will fight it until the end. We are being proactive and fighting the enemy in their territory, striking them in the very places where they worked on their plans and in the very areas the evil terrorists came from,” Halevi wrote.
“We are advancing in the stages of the war, and operating on the ground inside the enemy’s territory, supported by precise and heavy fire. The activity will continue and intensify according to the stages of the war and its objectives, as defined by the Israeli government,” he said.
“We are fighting for our right and the right of future generations to live in safety and prosperity in our homeland,” he added.
Earlier, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a press conference that the war was exacting “a heavy price,” referring to the fallen soldiers as “children of us all.”
Israel “must hit the enemy for the sake of those who have fallen, for the sake of the living, for the people of Israel and for the State of Israel,” he said.
“Fierce battles are taking place in Gaza. The IDF is advancing on the road to defeating Hamas,” Gallant added. “The war is progressing according to the objectives. Hamas is suffering severe blows. More than 10,000 munitions were dropped on Gaza City, thousands of targets were hit, thousands of sites were destroyed, thousands of terrorists were eliminated.”
He said IDF soldiers were encountering Hamas gunmen emerging from tunnels, hospitals and schools, and vowed that Israel “won’t stop until we get to all the terrorists, of all ranks,” adding: “The enemy has only two choices — to die or surrender unconditionally.”
Both Gallant and Halevi said Israel was working relentlessly to secure the release of the 242 captives abducted to Gaza by terror groups during the October 7 onslaught, the majority of them civilians. A top Hamas official has said that given the chance, the Palestinian terror group would repeat such massacres again and again.
As part of Jerusalem’s efforts to free the hostages, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen spoke Wednesday with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Mirjana Spoljaric, and harshly criticized the organization’s conduct so far.
Cohen’s office said he told Spoljaric that the ICRC must demand to meet and provide medical assistance to all the hostages.
“The Red Cross has no right to exist if it does not succeed in visiting the hostages being held captive by the Hamas terror group,” Cohen told Spoljaric, noting that “children, women and Holocaust survivors” were being held captive.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people in Gaza with foreign passports were allowed to exit the Strip Wednesday, leaving through Egypt’s Rafah crossing along with dozens of seriously injured Palestinians who were set to receive medical treatment.
US President Joe Biden announced that American citizens looking to leave Gaza would be able to do so, with some exiting on Wednesday and others over the next few days. Roughly 700 Americans are believed to reside in Gaza, some 400 of whom have reached out to American authorities since the outbreak of the war to express interest in leaving, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.
The US was working to get those 400 citizens out of Gaza along with 600 of their family members, Miller said.
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.
Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.
The war was sparked on October 7, when some 3,000 terrorists led by Hamas burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.
The vast majority of those killed as terrorists seized border communities were civilians — including babies, 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.
According to the Hamas-run health ministry, more than 8,700 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.
Jacob Magid, Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.