Israeli special forces conducted a raid in the Gaza city of Khan Younis on Sunday night, apparently killing several suspected Palestinian terrorists, including a senior commander in Hamas’s military wing, and bringing the region back to the brink of war.
The IDF later confirmed that a special forces officer was killed and another injured in the raid. The military censor prevented news of the IDF officer’s death and the second officer’s injuries from being published until their families could be notified. The names of the soldiers were not released by the military, which cited national security concerns.
The fighting set off a massive round of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, and at least a dozen rockets or mortar shells were fired at southern Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late Sunday he would return to Israel immediately and cut a trip to Paris short.
The flareup punctured a brief calm along the restive border, coming two days after Israel allowed Qatar to send $15 million in cash to Hamas in Gaza — one of the first moves in a reported ceasefire agreement between Israel and the terrorist group.
According to Hamas’s military wing, a Qassam Brigades commander, Nour Barakeh, was killed along with five other Hamas members by Israeli special forces who drove a “civilian vehicle” three kilometers into Gaza from the border. The seventh Palestinian killed was a member of the Nasser Salahdin Brigades, the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, Hamas said in a statement.
Barakeh was reportedly closely involved in Hamas’s tunnel program and also served as the commander of a Khan Younis regional battalion.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Tal Russo, a former commander of the IDF Southern Command, indicated that the operation was likely an intelligence-gathering mission gone wrong, rather than an assassination.
“Activities that most civilians aren’t aware of happen all the time, every night and in every region. This action — an operation that was apparently exposed — wasn’t an assassination attempt. We have other ways of assassinating people and we know how to do it much more elegantly,” Russo told Channel 10 news.
The retired general, who until recently was responsible for the IDF’s missions abroad, also told Army Radio that Barakeh was likely killed in a rescue effort to extract the special forces soldiers.
Palestinian media outlets reported the Israeli troops had initially tried to capture — not kill — Barakeh during the raid, but that the Hamas commander was shot dead after the operation was exposed. This could not be immediately confirmed by the IDF.
The Qassam Brigades said it engaged the Israeli commandos, setting off an intense firefight with Israeli troops, including reported drone strikes throughout the southern Gaza Strip.
The special forces squad was forced to retreat to the Israeli side of the fence under the cover of the aerial bombardment, Hamas’s military wing said in a statement.
A Hamas spokesperson praised the “brave resistance that repulsed the Israeli aggression.”
The Israeli military confirmed that “an exchange of fire broke out during security activities by the IDF in the Gaza Strip region,” but would not elaborate further. The military initially refused to comment on Israeli casualties and would only confirm that no Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped, in an effort to tamp down on rumors.
Quick recap so far: IDF operated in the Gaza Strip, exchange of gunfire ensued. All IDF soldiers back in Israel. Several alarms have sounded in Southern Israel. More to follow.
— Jonathan Conricus (@LTCJonathan) November 11, 2018
Following the clashes, at least 10 projectiles were fired at southern Israel as of 23:58 p.m. Sunday, two of which were shot down by the Iron Dome air defense system, the army said. After midnight warning sirens continued to wail and several more projectiles were fired into Israel, with no immediate reports of casualties.
Light damage was caused to a number of greenhouses in the Eshkol region, locals said.
Residents of southern Israel were instructed to remain close to their bomb shelters in the event of reprisals Sunday night.
There were no reports of rockets or mortar shells landing inside Israeli communities near the Gaza border. The projectiles not intercepted by the Iron Dome apparently landed in open fields.
The flight paths into and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport were altered in light of the Gaza clashes, a spokesperson for the Aviation Authority said.
Netanyahu was informed of the flareup while in Paris on an official state visit.
“In light of the security-related incidents in the South, the prime minister has decided to shorten his visit to Paris and to return to Israel tonight,” his office said in a statement.
Culture Minister Miri Regev was appointed acting prime minister in Netanyahu’s absence; however, she cannot call a meeting of the powerful security cabinet as she is not a member of it.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has the authority to hold a special session of the security cabinet.
On Sunday evening, he met with top defense officials in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters, including IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot and the head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman.
According to the Gaza Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry, in addition to Barakeh, six other Hamas members, all in their 20s, were killed in clashes with the IDF.
Seven other Palestinians were reportedly injured in the clashes.
Israelis in the Eshkol region, across from Khan Younis, reported hearing multiple explosions as fighting broke out at around 9:30 p.m.
Roads immediately surrounding the Gaza Strip were closed in light of military activities, the police said.
Hamas’s interior ministry told Palestinian media that the terror group’s military wing and police force were put on high alert throughout Gaza, following the clashes.
The flareup came as the sides were said to be nearing a deal for a ceasefire along the restive border.
On Friday, Israel allowed in $15 million of Qatari cash for Hamas to pay workers amid intensive Egyptian led efforts to reach a calm between the sides.
Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was doing its utmost to prevent “unnecessary wars” in the Gaza Strip, but maintained that diplomacy was futile with the Hamas leaders of the Palestinian enclave.
At a press conference in Paris, where the prime minister had attended the 100th anniversary commemorations of the end of World War I along with other world leaders, Netanyahu said no final diplomatic deal was possible with Hamas — the ruler of the beleaguered enclave.
“There is no diplomatic solution for Gaza, just as there is no diplomatic solution for ISIS,” said Netanyahu.
“I am doing everything I can to avoid an unnecessary war,” said the prime minister, pointing to the deaths of millions during the First World War as an example of senseless bloody warfare. “I am not afraid of war if it’s necessary, but I want to avoid it if it’s not necessary.”
Weekly Gaza border protests, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have been going on since March 30 and have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks, bombings and attempted border breaches as well as the launching of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel. Southern Israel has also seen sporadic, but aggressive rocket bombardments from the Gaza Strip.
Egypt, alongside United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov, has recently played a key role in attempts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and the armed groups in the Strip.
Egyptian mediators have been working intensively to maintain calm, and also hope to bring about national reconciliation between the Hamas terror group, which seized Gaza by force in 2007, and the West Bank-based administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
TOI staff and Agencies contributed to this report.