Reporter's notebook

In largely conquered northern Gaza, troops comb rubble in hunt for rocket launchers

Military begins ‘methodical’ process of locating, destroying terror group’s remaining capabilities, amid sporadic clashes with small cells of operatives

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

  • A long-range rocket launcher uncovered by the IDF in Gaza City's Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
    A long-range rocket launcher uncovered by the IDF in Gaza City's Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
  • Lt. Col. Daniel, the commander of the 401st Armored Brigade’s 52nd Battalion, speaks to reporters in Gaza City's Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
    Lt. Col. Daniel, the commander of the 401st Armored Brigade’s 52nd Battalion, speaks to reporters in Gaza City's Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
  • Israeli forces operate in Gaza City's Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
    Israeli forces operate in Gaza City's Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
  • Israeli forces operate in Gaza City's Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
    Israeli forces operate in Gaza City's Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

TUFFAH, Gaza Strip — In the northern Gaza Strip, where the Israel Defense Forces said it has defeated Hamas’s “military framework” and has established “operational control,” its war against the terror group is still far from over.

Between sporadic clashes with remaining Hamas operatives, Israeli forces are carrying out mop-up operations in the area to locate every last rocket launcher, as well as any other Hamas infrastructure that could pose a threat to Israeli civilians and troops, according to Israel Defense Forces officers.

Speaking to The Times of Israel and other reporters in Gaza City’s Tuffah neighborhood on Sunday, the lieutenant colonel commanding the 401st Armored Brigade’s 52nd Battalion said the pervading feeling in Israeli society that the war was slowing is incorrect.

“The war has definitely not ended for us,” said Daniel, whose last name was withheld for security reasons.

As an armored personnel carrier took us to the site of a now-uncovered rocket launcher, Daniel said the past week had seen his battalion undertake the “methodical” destruction of Hamas’s remaining weapons in the area.

“We receive an area where there is intelligence on rockets that were fired or are intended to be launched at Israel, and we arrive at the area, capture it, and destroy these capabilities,” he said.

A long-range rocket launcher uncovered by the IDF in Gaza City’s Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Despite the army having dismantled Hamas’s local military organization, according to the IDF, forces were still encountering small Hamas cells in their area of operations, Daniel said.

“We respect the enemy, but it doesn’t have anything on us,” he said, noting an incident a night earlier where a Hamas operative fired an RPG from a tunnel shaft at a tank, causing no casualties. The soldiers returned fire, killing the operative and other two members of the Hamas cell.

The tunnel from which the operative emerged was destroyed during our visit to the area.

“I don’t think it’s an all organized like we saw at the start [of the ground offensive],” Daniel said.

As Hamas’s capabilities have been degraded by Israel’s offensive, once interminable rocket fire from Gaza has become more sporadic, with most days seeing barely  a handful of projectiles fired at communities near the border, though there are still occasional large volleys deep into Israel.

During the visit, a projectile launched from deeper within Gaza City was intercepted above us by the Iron Dome air defense system.

A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip is intercepted by the Iron Dome over Gaza City’s Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Locating the hundreds or even thousands of remaining rocket launchers and tunnels is a slow process, which the IDF says it expects to take many more months.

“There are a lot [of rocket launchers and tunnels], but any area where there is a tunnel or a rocket, we will get there. It doesn’t matter how long it will take, we have a mission to defeat Hamas and its capabilities, however long it will take,” Daniel said.

“Any rocket that is fired at Israel is a threat, and we are here to prevent this. It will take a long time. You can’t stop the rocket fire immediately,” he continued. “These are capabilities Hamas built over a long time, but I hope we can destroy them as quickly as possible.”

The searches are taking place across northern Gaza, with other units also taking part in the efforts.

On Sunday alone, the 52nd Battalion located eight long-range rocket launchers in its area of operations, the IDF said.

The well-hidden launchers, which were embedded in the ground and covered by an olive grove, had already been used to fire at Israel, according to the army. The IDF said it uncovered them with armored bulldozers, following intelligence information on the launch site.

Beneath the launchers was a tunnel where terrorists are thought to have hidden while setting off the launchers during the recent attack.

Israeli forces operate in Gaza City’s Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“The fighting now is piece by piece, house by house,” said Col. Nissim Hazan, a senior officer in the 401st Brigade, who was passing by to inspect the recently uncovered rocket launchers.

“Any house where we didn’t find weapons is suspicious; every other home here is full of firearms, and explosives — I’m not exaggerating,” Hazan said.

“We are in a different stage of fighting now. If before we maneuvered deep into Gaza… now we need to operate more thoroughly, and as you can see, there isn’t a spot we won’t touch,” he said, pointing to the destruction around us caused by strikes and the treads of the IDF’s armored vehicles.

During our tour of the site, there were persistent explosions from tank shelling and sounds of gunfire as troops worked to clear nearby buildings of threats before searching for further rocket launchers.

A large cloud of smoke is seen following the detonation of a Hamas tunnel in Gaza City’s Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Asked if he wished to return home, Daniel said, “Waking up each morning and finding that lone launcher, we have done something good for the people of Israel.”

“I think this beats everything,” he said. “Even the desire to return home.”

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