Two soldiers killed in Gaza as IDF leaves Jabaliya, presses into center of Rafah

Second re-clearing operation in northern Gaza ends after nearly 3 weeks; IDF says troops killed hundreds of terror operatives, recovered bodies of 7 hostages, destroyed tunnels

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

IDF troops operate in northern Gaza's Jabaliya, in a handout photo published May 31, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF troops operate in northern Gaza's Jabaliya, in a handout photo published May 31, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli soldiers pulled out of the Jabaliya refugee camp Friday, wrapping up an operation to clear out Hamas-led fighters who had re-entrenched in northern Gaza, as troops pushed a pinpoint offensive deeper into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, the military said Friday.

Two Israeli troops were killed amid the intense fighting, the Israel Defense Forces announced, as the army’s death toll in the seven-month-old ground campaign neared 300.

The army announced that Sgt. First Class (res.) Adar Gavriel, 24, of the Bislamach Brigade’s 6828th Battalion, was killed in Jabaliya, where troops have been fighting for the last three weeks against Hamas cells that regrouped in the city’s historic refugee camp, an area that the military had not reached previously.

According to an initial IDF probe, the Caesarea native was hit by a grenade hurled by a terror operative from a building as troops were scanning the area. The soldiers killed the operative a short while later.

Sgt. Yehonatan Elias, 20, of the Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance unit, was killed during fighting in Rafah, where Israel says it is engaged in a “precise” and “intelligence-based” offensive against the Hamas terror group’s last major stronghold.

The Jerusalemite was killed during a battle that also left a Givati officer seriously wounded, the military said.

Their deaths brought the toll of slain troops in the IDF’s ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza and amid operations along the border to 294. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

Sgt. First Class (res.) Adar Gavriel, left, and Sgt. Yonatan Elias, killed during fighting in Gaza on May 30, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Gavriel was the 10th Israeli soldier killed in the Jabaliya operation, including five who died as the result of a single “friendly fire incident.”

The IDF pushed into Jabaliya earlier this month for the third time during the war, in an operation launched to oust Hamas fighters trying to re-establish themselves in northern Gaza and following new intelligence obtained by the IDF on the bodies of Israeli hostages being held there.

Amid the 20-day-long operation, which wrapped up early Friday morning, the military said it killed hundreds of terror operatives, recovered the bodies of seven slain Israeli hostages, and demolished major tunnels.

IDF troops operate in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, in a handout photo published May 31, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Palestinians had reported that the IDF was pulling out of Jabaliya on Thursday, though the army denied the claim at the time.

IDF officers described the fighting in Jabaliya as some of the most intense amid the war. Jabaliya’s refugee camp is one of Gaza’s most densely built-up areas, and troops came under massive RPG fire by Hamas operatives.

The IDF said Hamas turned Jabaliya’s civilian infrastructure into “a fortified combat complex,” opened fire at troops from schools and other sites where civilians were sheltering, and built tunnel networks under civilian buildings. A video released by the military showed the entrance to a tunnel inside a school in Jabaliya.

Some 120 anti-tank projectiles were launched at the troops, along with dozens more incidents of planted explosive devices, sniper fire, and drones that dropped bombs, according to the military.

Overground, the division’s 7th, 460th and Paratroopers brigades killed hundreds of gunmen in “intense battles” and destroyed dozens of sites belonging to terror groups, the IDF said.

The IDF estimated that it killed around 500-600 terror operatives during the operation in Jabaliya. Only 350 have been verified so far, following battles and airstrikes.

More than 200 airstrikes were carried out adjacent to the ground forces amid the operation, killing gunmen, including Hamas field commanders, the IDF said.

IDF troops operate in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, in a handout photo published May 31, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Hundreds of weapons, as well as several weapon-manufacturing sites and several rocket launchers, were located and destroyed by troops in the operation, the IDF said.

Underground, some 12 kilometers (7 miles) worth of Hamas tunnels were demolished by combat engineers, after troops raided the underground networks, the military said.

In one tunnel network, troops recovered the bodies of Ron Benjamin, Itzhak Gelerenter, Amit Buskila, Orión Hernández Radoux, Hanan Yablonka and Michel Nisenbaum. All seven were murdered by Hamas terrorists on October 7 and their bodies were kidnapped to Gaza, according to the IDF.

98th Division commander, Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus, is seen in a tunnel in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya where the bodies of seven Israeli hostages were recovered, in a handout photo published May 31, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

In another tunnel in Jabaliya, the commander of Hamas’s Beit Hanoun Battalion, Hussien Fiad, along with several more operatives, were killed by special forces.

Two Hamas attack tunnels were also demolished amid the operation. The tunnels had reached around 500 meters from the Israeli border, according to IDF assessments.

The 98th Division was to now be given time for R&R, training, and going over plans for future operations in Gaza.

The entrance to a tunnel in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya where the bodies of seven Israeli hostages were recovered, in a handout photo published May 31, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Meanwhile, the military said it was pushing ahead with its operation in southern Gaza’s Rafah, confirming for the first time that it was operating in the center of the city a day after tanks were reported in the area.

The IDF said troops of the Commando and Givati brigades, operating in central Rafah, located rocket launchers, tunnel shafts, and caches of weapons used by Hamas.

In other areas of Rafah, including the eastern part of the city and along the so-called Philadelphi Corridor that runs along the Gaza-Egypt border, the IDF said other forces under the 162nd Division located long-range rockets and additional weapons and military equipment.

On Wednesday, the IDF said it had established “operational control” over the entire corridor, discovering dozens of rocket launchers and at least 20 cross-border tunnels.

Also in the Rafah area, the military said Friday that a member of Hamas’s elite Nukhba force was killed in a drone strike.

Strikes were carried out against “numerous” more targets across Gaza over the past day, including weapon depots, buildings used by terror groups, and cells of gunmen, the IDF added.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Despite a growing wave of international criticism of the operation, the IDF has asserted that Rafah is the last major remaining Hamas stronghold in the Strip, and suggested that many of the remaining hostages captured by the terror group on October 7 could be held in the city.

War broke out on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israeli communities and army positions, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 252 hostages, including a number of bodies.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 36,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though only some 22,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals. The toll, which cannot be verified, includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle.

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