Chanting “revenge” and flanked by masked gunmen in camouflage, thousands of mourners in the Gaza Strip on Monday buried seven Palestinian jihadists killed in an Israeli incursion as the ruling Hamas terror group launched a feverish security sweep across the territory.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh led a funeral for four members as masked gunmen in uniforms carried the coffins, wrapped in the flag of Hamas’s armed wing.
Hamas authorities in the Strip beefed up security measures after the incident, deploying checkpoints all over the territory. The group also canceled a weekly beach protest in northwestern Gaza along the border with Israel. The organizers said Monday’s protest was postponed “due to the ongoing security situation.”
An IDF special forces unit entered the territory Sunday night on what the Israeli military says was an intelligence-gathering mission. Most details of the operation could not be published by order of the military censor.
At some point during the raid, the troops were discovered by Hamas members and a firefight broke out, according to Palestinian accounts. The Israeli team called in aerial support, which provided cover fire to the soldiers as they made their way out of the coastal enclave.
A lieutenant colonel in the special forces unit, who for security reasons could only be identified by the first Hebrew letter of his name, “Mem,” was killed in the clash. A second officer was injured.
The cross-border fighting came just days after Israel and Hamas reached indirect understandings, backed by Qatar and Egypt, to allow cash and fuel into Gaza. The understandings are meant to be part of a broader effort to alleviate deteriorating conditions in the impoverished territory after 11 years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris because of the flareup, and returned to Israel on Monday for consultations with top security officials.
According to Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades commander Nour Barakeh was killed along with six other Palestinian operatives — either by Israeli special forces who drove a “civilian vehicle” three kilometers into Gaza from the border or by the ensuing Israeli airstrikes.
Barakeh was reportedly closely involved in Hamas’s tunnel program and also served as the commander of a Khan Younis regional battalion.
Military and political officials lauded Lt. Col. “Mem” — a 41-year-old husband and father of two — calling him courageous and praising his contribution to the nation’s security. Due to the nature of Mem’s position, additional identifying details could not be published.
The lieutenant colonel was buried in his hometown on Monday afternoon. President Reuven Rivlin, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Communication Minister Ayoub Kara attended the funeral.
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.
Weekly Gaza border protests, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have been taking place 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.
Over 160 Gazans have been killed in the clashes, dozens of them members of Hamas. The Hamas Islamist terror group, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, seeks to destroy Israel.
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, as well as to bring about national reconciliation between Hamas and the West Bank-based administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.