Army strikes PIJ rocket launcher inside 'humanitarian zone'

Two IDF reservists killed, 3 seriously hurt in Hamas mortar attack in central Gaza

Omer Smadga dies on the birthday of his father, Olympic medalist and coach Oren Smadga; second fatality is Saadia Yaakov Derai, son of pundit and social activist Laly Derai

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

Sgt. First Class (res.) Omer Smadga (left) and Sgt. First Class (res.) Saadia Yaakov Derai, killed in a Hamas mortar attack in central Gaza on June 20, 2024. (Courtesy)
Sgt. First Class (res.) Omer Smadga (left) and Sgt. First Class (res.) Saadia Yaakov Derai, killed in a Hamas mortar attack in central Gaza on June 20, 2024. (Courtesy)

Two IDF reservists — the son of a judo star and the son of a news pundit — were killed in a Hamas mortar attack in the central Gaza Strip on Thursday, the military announced Friday morning.

The soldiers were named as Sgt. First Class (res.) Omer Smadga, 25, from Genot Hadar, and Sgt. First Class (res.) Saadia Yaakov Derai, 27, from Tel Aviv.

Both served in the Alexandroni Brigade’s 9203rd Battalion.

Another three soldiers of the Alexandroni Brigade were seriously wounded in the incident, the IDF said.

Smadga is the son of retired athlete Oren Smadga, who celebrated his 54th birthday on Thursday. Oren Smadga won an Olympic bronze medal in judo for Israel in 1992 and currently serves as the judo coach of the Israeli men’s Olympic team.

Derai is the son of Laly Derai, a right-wing news pundit and social activist who immigrated from France in 1990. For 15 years she worked as a French-language political reporter in Israel, then managed an absorption program for French immigrants for two years. She ran in the Likud primary in 2022 and currently works for the Hamaniot nonprofit, which aids orphans in Israel.

Smadga’s funeral was set to take place at the Netanya military cemetery at 1 p.m. Friday, while Derai’s funeral was to be held at the same time at the Holon military cemetery.

Palestinians fill water from a standpipe erected in the Jabaliya refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip on June 20, 2024. (Omar AL-QATTAA / AFP)

“My Saadia was a boy who put everyone else’s will before his own,” Laly Derai eulogized her son in a statement. “He did a lot more than was expected of him in every field. He was a smart student, studied for the rabbinate exams, and began studying for his bachelor’s degree in teaching.”

“He studied every spare minute and had a great sense of humor,” she stated, adding that Saadia was an amazing father of two.

She said that while she had been “silent” since the beginning of the war, she was now demanding a total military victory in the war: “My son did not fall on the altar of a diplomatic arrangement but for the sake of complete victory over the enemy.”

The Olympic Committee of Israel issued a statement expressing its condolences to Oren Smadga for the loss of his son.

“Omer was a whole world who had only begun his life’s journey. All of Israel and the Israeli sporting family grieve his heroic fall,” the statement read.

“Dear Oren, a great coach, a great athlete. Just like you prepared and trained entire generations of excellent athletes, carrying the Israeli flag with pride and the human spirit — your dear son, too, is an example of someone taking on the most difficult tasks,” the statement read.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the mortar fire Thursday, saying it had targeted a military position near Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood.

The deaths brought the toll of slain troops in the ground offensive against Hamas and in operations on the Gaza border to 314. The toll includes a police officer killed in a hostage rescue mission. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

Smoke from Israeli bombardment billows in the background near an area previously housing displaced Palestinians who left Rafah towards Khan Younis on June 20, 2024. (Bashar TALEB / AFP)

Separately, two soldiers of the 401st Armored Brigade’s 46th Battalion were seriously wounded during fighting in southern Gaza’s Rafah earlier Thursday, the military said.

The pair were wounded as a result of anti-tank fire, according to an initial IDF probe.

They were taken to a hospital in Israel for treatment.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket launching site, embedded within a shelter for displaced Palestinians in the Israeli-designated “humanitarian zone” in the Khan Younis area of southern Gaza, was struck by a drone Thursday, the military said.

Before carrying out the airstrike, the IDF said that “much effort was made to reduce the risk of harm to uninvolved [civilians].”

“Terror organizations continue to place weapons and terror infrastructure in the heart of the civilian population, putting them at risk and using them as a human shield,” the military said in a statement.

The strike came as troops continued to operate in southern Gaza’s Rafah and in the Netzarim Corridor in the Strip’s center.

The IDF also released footage of the Nahal Brigade’s recent operations in southern Gaza’s Rafah, where the military is working to take apart what they say is Hamas’s final stronghold.

Videos published by the IDF showed a cache of weapons found by Nahal troops in a home, as well as a tunnel located in another building.

The weapons cache, including RPGs, grenades, explosive devices and other military equipment, was found in wardrobes inside the home, the military said.

The tunnel was located in a child’s bedroom using a small drone, the IDF said. In an adjacent room, the soldiers found a hole in a wall which the IDF said was used by Hamas operatives to move between buildings in the neighborhood.

Israeli tanks stationed deep in the western and central areas of the city stepped up bombardment, forcing more families living in the far coastal areas to flee northward Thursday. Some residents said the pace of the raid has been accelerated in the past two days.

“The tanks took control of most of the areas in Rafah. People living by the beach have also started to leave toward Khan Younis and central areas in fear of the continued bombardment,” said Abu Wasim, a resident from Rafah’s Shaboura neighborhood, who quit his home over a week ago before tanks rolled in reaching the heart of the city.

War erupted when Hamas-led terrorists rampaged through southern communities on October 7, murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 251 hostages to Gaza.

There are thought to be 120 hostages still held in Gaza, 116 of whom were kidnapped on October 7, in addition to two civilians and the bodies of two soldiers held there for nearly a decade.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far. The toll, which cannot be verified and does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, is thought to include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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