Soldier dies in Gaza combat; Hamas claims 6,000 of its fighters killed, vows to fight on

Officials say Israel expects to continue full-scale military operations in Strip for 6-8 weeks; UNRWA says nearly three in four Gazans are drinking contaminated water

Staff Sgt. Simon Shlomov, 20, who was killed fighting in southern Gaza on February 18, 2024. (IDF)
Staff Sgt. Simon Shlomov, 20, who was killed fighting in southern Gaza on February 18, 2024. (IDF)

The Israel Defense Forces announced Monday that a soldier was killed fighting in southern Gaza a day earlier. He was named as Staff Sgt. Simon Shlomov, 20, of the Paratroopers Brigade’s 202nd Battalion, from Kiryat Bialik.

His death took the military toll in the ground offensive against Hamas to 235.

Meanwhile, a Hamas official based in Qatar told Reuters that the terror group estimated it had lost 6,000 fighters during the four-month-old conflict, just over half the 10,000 Israel says it has killed.

Hamas can keep fighting and is prepared for a long war in Rafah and Gaza, said the official, who requested anonymity.

“Netanyahu’s options are difficult and ours are too. He can occupy Gaza but Hamas is still standing and fighting. He hasn’t achieved his goals to kill the Hamas leadership or annihilate Hamas,” he added.

The comments were a rare acknowledgment from the terror group that it has suffered significant losses in the Gaza fighting and appeared to mark the first time that it has differentiated between combatants and civilians in a death toll from the war.

Troops operate in Gaza, in a handout image cleared for publication by the IDF on February 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to official figures from the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, 28,985 Palestinians have been killed.

However, Hamas’s figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and combatants killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed 10,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Israel expects to continue full-scale military operations in Gaza for another six to eight weeks as it prepares to mount a ground operation in the enclave’s southernmost city of Rafah, four officials familiar with the strategy told Reuters.

Military chiefs believe they can significantly damage Hamas’s remaining capabilities in that time, paving the way for a shift to a lower-intensity phase of targeted airstrikes and special forces operations, according to the two Israeli and two regional officials who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely.

Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Feb. 18, 2024 (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Over half of the Strip’s 2.3 million Palestinians have sought refuge in Rafah — the last city in the enclave where the IDF ground forces seek to operate.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz warned Sunday that if hostages held in Gaza are not freed within the next few weeks, Israel will broaden its offensive in southern Gaza and push into Rafah.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know — if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that no progress can be made in the talks for a hostage deal and temporary ceasefire until Hamas changes its “delusional” position.

The holy Muslim month of Ramadan begins this year on March 10.

In response to international concern about what would happen to the people in Rafah, Netanyahu has said residents will be evacuated before a ground offensive begins there, though it is unclear where they will be able to go.

Volunteers distribute rations of red lentil soup to displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 18, 2024 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The IDF said Monday it struck and killed a Hamas terrorist who fired a rocket from central Gaza at southern Israel Sunday.

The rocket landed in an open area near the Gaza border, causing no damage or injuries.

Within several minutes, the Nahal Brigade spotted the operative who fired the rocket and directed an airstrike against him, the IDF said, adding that other Hamas cells were killed in the area.

Meanwhile, in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, the IDF says the 7th Armored Brigade, Paratroopers Brigade, and Commando Brigade continued their operations, including raiding Hamas sites, capturing weapons, and killing operatives in the process.

Several airstrikes were carried out against Hamas operatives near the troops, the IDF said.

In one incident in Khan Younis, the Paratroopers Brigade using a drone spotted a Hamas cell moving toward them, and called in an airstrike, the IDF said. It added that a short while later, another four operatives were spotted and also struck.

Troops operate in Gaza, in a handout image cleared for publication by the IDF on February 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The war broke out on October 7, when Hamas carried out a devastating attack on southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 253 hostages amid acts of brutality including widespread sexual violence.

In response, Israel launched a military campaign with the aim of securing the release of the hostages and toppling Hamas from power in Gaza.

The war has caused a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, with most of the population displaced and at risk of starvation.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said nearly three in four people are drinking contaminated water.

“The speed of deterioration in Gaza is unprecedented,” it said.

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