Backed by punishing air power as well as naval backup, Israeli soldiers and armored columns pushed into Gaza City on Thursday, the military’s chief of staff said, calling the advance “another significant stage in the war,” and indicating Israel may soon allow long-sought fuel transfers to hospitals in the Strip.
Conquering the city, Gaza’s largest and a stronghold of the Strip’s Hamas rulers, will be a daunting task for Israel’s military, whose aspirations of ousting the terror group will force soldiers to fight through the crowded urban labyrinth thought awash with bombs and booby traps and undercut by a vast network of tunnels used by terrorists to ambush or surprise troops.
In a statement from an Air Force base, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said troops have surrounded the city in the northern part of the strip from several directions.
“We have advanced another significant stage in the war. The forces are in the heart of northern Gaza, operating in Gaza City, surrounding it, and deepening [the ground offensive] and its achievements,” he said. The IDF said that around 130 Hamas terrorists were killed in gun battles with IDF soldiers Thursday afternoon and early evening.
Twenty-seven days after Hamas terrorists carried out a massive deadly rampage through southern Israel, plunging the region into war, Palestinian terror groups continued to fire rockets at Israel, with several barrages aimed at the center of the country, setting sirens off in Rishon Lezion, Lod, Ramle and Rosh Ha’ayin, as well as toward the southern city of Beersheba. One rocket launched from Gaza hit a home in central Israel, causing heavy damage, but no injuries. Occupants had been sheltering in a safe room.
The death toll among IDF troops grew to 19 confirmed deaths since the start of the ground operation six days earlier, including a senior officer. Several others were wounded in the fighting, some seriously.
The IDF said Thursday evening that the air force has also continued its strikes on Gaza, adding that aircraft struck a number of military headquarters used by senior Hamas officials, among other targets belonging to the terror group.
Navy forces have also participated in the fighting, with the IDF saying missile boats aided ground forces by striking booby-trapped buildings and Hamas observation posts. The IDF said it also struck several Hamas sites along the coast, belonging to the terror group’s naval forces.
IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Thursday evening that ground forces have “completely encircled Gaza City, the center of Hamas activity” in the Strip. Asked about a potential ceasefire, Hagari said “the term ‘ceasefire’ is not at all on the table at the moment.”
Brigadier General Iddo Mizrahi, chief of Israel’s military engineers, was quoted by Reuters on Thursday saying that “Hamas has learned and prepared itself well” for Israel’s ground invasion, noting that troops are continuously encountering mines, booby traps and ambushes.
Visiting an army base in the center of Israel on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the IDF campaign is “in full swing. We have very impressive successes, and we are already beyond the outskirts of Gaza City. We are still advancing.”
He repeated his call for civilians in Gaza not involved in Hamas operations “to go, go, move south, because we will not stop our operations to take out Hamas terrorists. We will move forward, and we will win.”
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.
Halevi said Israeli forces are fighting “in a dense and complex urban area, which requires professional combat and courage,” and includes close-quarters combat.
“Ground forces are accompanied by accurate intelligence, with fire from the air and sea. This partnership makes combat much more effective,” he added, noting that “many dozens of Hamas operatives” are being killed every day.
Still, he pointed out, the war has a “difficult and painful price,” noting the death toll. “We lost the best of our sons in the war, we embrace their families,” Halevi added.
Israeli troops reached Gaza City after several days of fighting on the city’s outskirts, including raining large airstrikes on parts of Jabaliya, a suburb crowded with residential high rises. Overnight, Hamas launched a massive ambush on troops, emerging from tunnels and attacking them with anti-tank missiles, mortars, and drones. Some 20 members of the terror group were killed as fighters tried to enter the armored personnel carriers and take control of them before being fought off, including by artillery and air strikes.
Footage and recordings released Thursday showed a dramatic overnight battle between members of the Golani Brigade against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, during which troops managed to fight off an ambush and kill dozens of terrorists after they jumped out of underground tunnels.
Engineering soldiers with armored bulldozers began taking apart tunnels in areas of northern Gaza that troops have already taken control of, the Walla news site reported. There was no immediate IDF confirmation.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Thursday that has “unique solutions to reach all the tunnels and dismantle them underground — and we are ready to do it,” in comments to troops of the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit.
The advance into Gaza City came a day before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Israel and as global pressure mounts to enact a humanitarian “pause” in fighting as well as boosting the amount of aid crossing via Rafah. Before his departure, Blinken said he will be seeking “concrete steps” to minimize harm to Gaza civilians during his trip to the region, which includes a stop in Jordan.
In response to a reporter’s question on Thursday, Halevi said that Israel would allow fuel to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing with Egypt should Israel determine that hospitals have run out of fuel.
Israel has repeatedly refused to allow in fuel, citing concerns that it could be used by Hamas to bolster its efforts against Israel. Hospitals in the Strip, which rely on the fuel to power generators, have warned for over a week that they are about to run out, Halevi noted, but none actually have as of yet.
“We have not brought fuel in to this point,” he said. “We check the situation in the Strip every day. For over a week, they tell us that the fuel in the hospitals will run out, and it hasn’t. We’ll see when that day comes. Fuel will be transferred, with oversight, to the hospitals, and we will do everything to ensure that it doesn’t reach Hamas infrastructure and won’t serve [Hamas’s] war aims.”
Shortly after Halevi’s comments, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a terse statement noting only that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has not approved the entry of fuel into Gaza.”
Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of stealing and hoarding fuel in the Strip intended for hospitals and humanitarian use, and diverting it for terror purposes. The IDF released images last week of half a million liters of diesel it said the terror group was holding in the Strip.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said Thursday that more than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed since war broke out more than three weeks ago, including 3,760 children. Hamas figures cannot be independently confirmed, and the terror group has been accused of artificially inflating the death toll. The figures do not differentiate between terrorists and civilians nor between those killed in Israeli strikes and those killed by the hundreds of terror group rockets that have fallen short inside the Strip.
Israel declared war, with the aim of eradicating Hamas, following the terror group’s devastating October 7 onslaught, in which some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were brutally murdered in their homes and at a music festival, and hundreds more were abducted.
Earlier Thursday, IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the military had notified the families of 242 hostages that their loved ones were being held in the Gaza Strip, up by two from the previous tally. He said the number was not final as the military investigates new information. The figure does not include those already released or rescued, nor the two civilians who have been held in Gaza for several years.
Halevi said Thursday that for the sake of Israeli security, regional stability and the good of the residents of Gaza, “it will not be right for Hamas to remain in control of Gaza. Who will be there? We’ll leave that for other discussions.”
The IDF chief also noted that the military has an “obligation” to return home all the hostages being held by Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip. He said the army is fighting “in the name of the sanctity of life, against an enemy who has engraved death on his flag. We are fighting for our right to live in safety.”
“We have no other country in the face of absolute evil. We act with intelligence and determination,” he added.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.