Israel kills Hamas commander behind deadly attacks; rocket barrage targets Tel Aviv

IDF chief okays battle plans for continued ground offensive in Gaza; defense minister: We’ve returned to fighting in full force

Israeli troops stand on the top of tanks and military vehicles at sunset near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 2, 2023, after battles resumed between Israel and Hamas (Jack Guez / AFP)
Israeli troops stand on the top of tanks and military vehicles at sunset near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 2, 2023, after battles resumed between Israel and Hamas (Jack Guez / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces said Saturday it had killed a Hamas battalion commander responsible for several deadly attacks against both civilians and soldiers, as it continued to pound terror targets in the Gaza Strip and prepare for an expected ground offensive in the enclave’s south.

At the same time, Gaza rocket fire at Israel continued, with projectiles fired at Tel Aviv on Saturday evening for the first time since November 20.

Rocket sirens sounded across a wide swath of central Israel, and a young man was lightly hurt in Holon from shrapnel.

The IDF said it was investigating after footage showed an Iron Dome interceptor missile failing and crashing in central Israel during the rocket barrage. There were no reports of injuries as a result of the incident.

“The possibility that an interceptor [missile] fell in the country due to a technical malfunction is being examined,” the IDF said in response to a query on the matter.

“The incident is being investigated,” it added.

Tamir missiles fail occasionally, though in most cases have not caused any significant damage.

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the military killed Wissam Farhat, the commander of Hamas’s Shejaiya battalion, in an airstrike. Hagari said Farhat was responsible for an attack on Golani troops in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya during the 2014 war. Seven soldiers were killed in the incident, known as the APC disaster, including Oron Shaul, whose remains have been held by Hamas since.

Farhat also “planned and sent terrorists on October 7 to the Nahal Oz kibbutz and army post, in the cruel massacre that was carried out,” Hagari said. Dozens of Israelis were killed and dozens more kidnapped there.

The army released a video of the strike that killed Farhat.

The IDF said Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and the head of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, held an assessment Saturday at IDF Southern Command in Beersheba, and approved battle plans for Israel’s continued ground offensive in Gaza.

“We are focused on continuing to dismantle Hamas, and on creating conditions for the return of additional hostages,” Halevi said in remarks provided by the IDF.

Earlier in the day the army said it carried out “extensive” strikes against Hamas in south Gaza Friday overnight and into Saturday, while calling on Palestinians to evacuate from areas near the Israeli border, indicating ground operations in the southern part of the Strip were due to start soon.

In a statement Saturday morning, the IDF said it carried out airstrikes against over 400 targets across the Strip in the past day since fighting resumed. Ground, air and naval forces were all involved in the operations.

The military said fighter jets attacked over 50 targets in the Khan Younis area in “extensive” strikes in the southern part of the enclave.

At the same time, the IDF announced that a senior officer missing since October 7 was killed that day and his remains were being held by Hamas in the Strip. Col. Asaf Hamami, 41, the commander of the Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade, was recognized as a “fallen soldier held by a terror group,” the IDF announced.

In recent days, the IDF has been confirming the deaths of several hostages held by Hamas, due to new intelligence and findings obtained by troops.

‘Continuing where we left off’

At a press conference Saturday evening, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the military had “returned to fighting in full force” after Hamas violated a ceasefire agreement with Israel by refusing to release 15 women and two children as part of a truce deal.

“We are continuing exactly where we left off,” he said.

“Thousands of terrorists have been eliminated, dozens of headquarters [have been struck], hundreds of terabytes of information are in our hands, hundreds of terrorists have been captured and are being interrogated in Israel,” he said. “An achievement of 110 hostages returning alive — no army in the world has achieved this against a terror organization. We achieved it because of the strength of the IDF.”

Speaking later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the war would continue until the goal of destroying Hamas was achieved, adding that he would also continue to work toward freeing the hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza

“There is no way to achieve these goals apart from winning, and no way to win apart from through the ground invasion.”

He reiterated his position that the Palestinian Authority cannot rule Gaza after Hamas is deposed, saying it supports terrorism financially and through education and rejects Israel’s right to exist.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference on December 2, 2023 (GPO Screenshot)

Apparently referring to Fatah and Hamas, he said Palestinian leadership had “split in two, but the ideology, to my sorrow, that rejects the existence of Israel is common to both those factions. So I won’t repeat the mistake and put that entity into Gaza, because we’ll get the same thing.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera Saturday, Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of Hamas’s politburo, said that negotiations for further releases of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners had halted, and that there would be no further exchanges until the war ends.

Hamas deputy political chief Saleh al-Arouri, after signing a reconciliation deal with senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, during a short ceremony at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, October 12, 2017. (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)

Al-Arouri claimed that Hamas had released all the women and children kidnapped on October 7 as well as all the foreign prisoners, and that the remaining hostages in its hands were all soldiers or former soldiers.

But Egyptian officials told The Wall Street Journal that truce talks were ongoing despite the departure of Israeli negotiators from Qatar. According to unnamed officials quoted by the paper, Qatari officials remain in Israel and Egyptians were in Gaza to keep lines of communication open.

“We are still talking and sharing updates every hour. Negotiations only collapse when parties stop talking. This is not happening here,” a senior Egyptian official was quoted saying.

Saturday evening also saw large crowds gather at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, now renamed Hostages Square, for a rally calling for the release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas and other terror groups.

Several of the hostages freed during the weeklong truce that collapsed on Friday spoke either on stage or in video clips screened to participants. Relatives of some of those still being held in Gaza also spoke.

Channel 12 estimated that tens of thousands of people were present.

Representatives of the families have been pleading with decision-makers to do everything they can to facilitate the release of the rest of the hostages.

Protesters hold placards with the picture of 21-year-old Omer Shem Tov during a demonstration to ask for the release of hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attack, in Tel Aviv on December 2, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

In the wake of the collapse of the truce, which Hamas breached by refusing to free remaining women and children, the families have sought to meet Saturday night with members of the war cabinet.

Channel 12 reported that Minister Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot — a member and an observer in the war cabinet, respectively — had agreed to meet them.

Southern Gaza in focus

Israel believes some of Hamas’s leadership is present in Khan Younis, and plans to expand ground operations there.

The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip said that 240 people had been killed in the enclave since fighting renewed on Friday.

Hamas says the Israeli military campaign has killed more than 15,000 people, mostly civilians. These numbers have not been independently verified and are believed to include Palestinian civilians killed by errant rockets launched by terror groups as well as Palestinian terrorists killed by Israel.

Residents of the Qatari-funded Hamad Town residential complex in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip carry some of their belongings as they flee their homes after an Israeli strike, on December 2, 2023 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The fighting came after Hamas violated the temporary truce with Israel on Friday by failing to provide by 7 a.m. a list of hostages it intended to release that day as stipulated in the agreement that had been in place the previous Friday, and also launched rockets at Israeli communities prior to that time.

Israel’s Mossad spy agency said Saturday that a negotiating team that had been in Qatar for hostage mediation had been ordered home, with talks on extending the truce reaching a “dead end.”

Gazans reported the IDF had dropped flyers in Khan Younis calling on residents to move south to Rafah, warning that the area is dangerous.

The IDF on Saturday began to use a map splitting the Gaza Strip into hundreds of small zones, to notify Palestinian civilians of active combat zones, including in southern Gaza where ground troops are expected to operate when the IDF expands its offensive. The map is intended to replace an IDF demand for mass evacuations as it did in the northern part of Gaza.

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