Soldier killed in Gaza takes ground op toll to 175; troops find tunnel in school

IDF releases footage showing close air support for ground forces after unsubstantiated claims by far-right MKs; airstrike targets Islamic Jihad weapons plant

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

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released by the military on January 3, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released by the military on January 3, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces announced Wednesday that a soldier was killed fighting in north Gaza, as troops found a tunnel shaft in a school in the southern part of the Strip.

The death of Sgt. First Class Meiron Moshe Gersch, 21, from Petah Tikva, a member of the Combat Engineering Corps’ elite Yahalom unit, took the military’s death toll in the ground operation to 175.

In its daily update on the ground operation in Gaza, the military said that during a search of a school in southern Gaza’s Khuza’a, troops of the 5th Brigade found a tunnel shaft, along with laminated photos of weaponry.

The IDF said the brigade also struck several Hamas sites in the area, including observation and missile launch positions.

The army also said troops of the Givati Brigade found weapons and a safe with hundreds of thousands of shekels in the home of an operative from Hamas’s elite Nukhba force.

Givati soldiers spotted a Hamas operative attempting to place an explosive device on an Israeli tank in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis. The troops directed an aircraft to strike the operative, along with three others who were in the area, according to the IDF.

Sgt. First Class Meiron Moshe Gersch (Israel Defense Forces)

Also in Khan Younis, the IDF said troops of the Kfir Brigade directed an airstrike on a weapons manufacturing plant belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.

Meanwhile in northern Gaza, the IDF said troops of the Nahal Brigade identified a Hamas cell operating drones in the area of Gaza City’s Daraj and Tuffah neighborhoods, in order to observe Israeli forces.

It said the cell was eliminated in a drone strike.

Amid unsubstantiated claims by far-right lawmakers that ground troops are not receiving enough air support during their operations in Gaza, the IDF released footage showing close air support by Israeli Air Force drones for ground forces operating in the Strip.

The clips showed drone strikes on Hamas operatives launching RPGs and missiles at troops and setting off explosive devices.

The IDF said the drone operators maintain constant radio contact with the ground forces and IAF command and control, which direct the aircraft to the correct locations and alert them of incidents. Additionally, the IAF’s drones also carry out other strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza and collect intelligence.

Meanwhile, Palestinians reported heavy airstrikes and artillery shelling in the southern city of Khan Younis and farming areas to the east.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Tuesday that Israel bombed its headquarters in the southern city, killing five people. At least 14,000 displaced people are sheltering in the building, it said. The IDF said it was looking into the incident.

Residents and Palestinian media said the IDF carried out airstrikes in the Al-Nusseirat refugee camp in the northern part of the Hamas-ruled enclave overnight and into Wednesday, destroying several multi-floor buildings.

Israeli planes also dropped leaflets on Al-Nusseirat ordering people to leave seven districts.

“You are in a dangerous combat area. The IDF is operating heavily in your area of residence. For your safety the IDF urges you to immediately evacuate this area and leave towards the known shelters in Deir Al-Balah (west),” the leaflets said.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said Wednesday that over 22,300 people had been killed since the start of the war. Those figures cannot be independently verified and are believed to include some 8,500 Hamas fighters, as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. Another estimated 1,000 terrorists were killed in Israel during the October 7 onslaught.

A man sits by the bodies of his relatives killed in an Israeli strike, at the morgue of al-Najjar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 3, 2024 (AFP)

Israel’s military offensive, which it says is aimed at toppling Hamas and is minimizing civilian casualties, has driven some 85 percent of Gaza’s population from their homes, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into overcrowded shelters or teeming tent camps in Israeli-designated safe areas. A quarter of Gaza residents face starvation, according to the United Nations.

In the last few weeks, as the IDF has expanded its ground offensive in Gaza and gained control of much of the ground in the northern part of the Strip, the rate of rocket fire on Israel has slowed significantly.

On Wednesday, rockets were fired at the Gaza border communities Yad Mordechai and Netiv Ha’asara. There were no reports of injuries or damage.

As the Israeli military began shifting fighting into lower gear in the northern Gaza Strip, with Hamas battalions in the area largely defeated, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Tuesday that any sense that Israel was ending the campaign to dismantle the terror group “is wrong.”

His comments came a few hours before top Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri was killed in a blast in Beirut widely attributed to Israel.

Israel’s ground operation in Gaza followed three weeks of aerial bombardments in the wake of the Hamas-led massacres on October 7, when Palestinian terrorists stormed the border into southern Israel and killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and kidnapped at least 240.

A woman looks at portraits of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attacks by Hamas in southern Israel, in Tel Aviv on December 30, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Israel declared war on Hamas in response, launching an offensive aimed at toppling the Gaza-ruling terror group and securing the release of the hostages. The ground operation initially concentrated on northern Gaza but has since expanded to the Strip’s south.

It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 23 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Another three people are listed as missing since October 7, and their fates are still unknown.

Hamas is also holding two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively, as well as the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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