Two soldiers killed in Gaza; IDF says gunmen found hiding among fleeing civilians

Hamas-run health ministry claims 98 killed in past day as airstrikes pound Strip from north to south; army confirms Nasser Hospital raid over, says rocket launcher found in lab

Palestinians flee their homes along with their belongings following Israeli strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
Palestinians flee their homes along with their belongings following Israeli strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Troops nabbed several members of terror groups who attempted to hide among a group of civilians evacuating from combat zones in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, the Israel Defense Forces said Sunday, illustrating the challenges of fighting in the crowded territory as Israel comes under increasing criticism over mounting threats to Palestinian civilians.

The issue was further driven home by Israel’s announcement that it had wrapped up a weeklong raid on a Khan Younis hospital, maintaining it had attempted to take patients’ needs into account while claiming that both weapons and fighters had been found there, necessitating the incursion into a compound normally off-limits to fighting.

The deaths of two soldiers brought Israel’s death toll in the lengthy ground offensive to 240, as troops continued to battle in various hotspots around the Strip, with a looming offensive into the far southern Gaza city of Rafah put off for the time being after talks on a truce and deal to free hostages appeared to make rare progress over the weekend.

Fighting has shunted Gaza’s civilians out of many areas, largely driving them south toward Rafah and other areas along the Egyptian border where safe zones have been established. Each day, thousands flee fighting in an attempt to reach safety, but fear the safety may not last should Israel expand its ground offensive into Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold remaining in the Strip.

Intense fighting is still ongoing in Khan Younis, some five kilometers (3.5 miles) north of Rafah. According to the IDF, terror operatives were captured by troops of the 7th Armored Brigade as they tried to flee with the civilian population, underlining Israeli claims that Hamas and other terror groups are embedding themselves within the civilian population, endangering noncombatants.

The military did not say how soldiers were able to spot the terror operatives among the civilians but noted that troops killed several more gunmen and located weapons in the area.

The two Israeli fatalities were named as Staff Sgt. Ido Eli Zrihen, 20, of Jerusalem, and Staff Sgt. Nerya Belete, 21, from Shavei Shomron. Both had been fighting with the Givati reconnaissance unit in southern Gaza. In addition, an officer and two soldiers in the Givati Brigade were seriously injured in fighting in the southern Gaza Strip, the military said.

Staff Sgt. Ido Eli Zrihen, 20, from Jerusalem, killed in action in Gaza, February 24, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Staff sergeant Narya Belete, 21, from Shavei Shomron, killed in action in south Gaza, February 24, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Soldiers were engaged in close combat against Hamas forces, killing fighters in gun battles, and ambushing gunmen with snipers, as well as calling in airstrikes.

Troops raided a number of sites, finding weapons, explosives, grenades, rifles, and other military equipment. A rocket launcher and a long-range projectile were found hidden in a refrigerator in a medical lab in the area, the army said.

The IDF also confirmed it had wrapped up a “precise and limited operation” at Nasser Hospital, where some 200 terror suspects were nabbed, some of whom are alleged to have links to the October 7 onslaught on southern Israel and the taking of hostages. Some 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas-led assault on communities near Gaza that sparked the war, and another 253 taken hostage, mostly civilians.

The IDF confirmed it had found sealed boxes of medication with the names of Israeli hostages on them in the hospital, part of shipments apparently send by relatives without the Israeli government’s involvement.

Israeli hostages had been previously held at Nasser Hospital, according to testimonies from released captives and interrogated terror suspects.

The army said weapons belonging to Hamas operatives were also found during several days of operations in the hospital.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in a photo cleared for publication on February 25, 2024. (IDF)

The World Health Organization had said the hospital, Gaza’s second largest and crucial to the territory’s crippled health services, was unable to function during the weeklong raid, calling it “a massive blow to Gaza’s health system.”

However, the army said it had taken pains to “ensure minimal disruption to the hospital’s ongoing activities and without harming patients and medical staff,” delivering a replacement generator after the hospital’s stopped functioning during the operation and enabling fuel to be delivered to the premises to keep the generator running. It denied that power to the medical center had been interrupted and said it said it “coordinated the entry of professional officials to examine the electricity problem in the hospital.”

Medication belonging to hostages found at Nasser Hospital, in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, in a handout image published by the IDF on February 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Food, water, medical supplies, and infant formula were also delivered to Nasser Hospital with IDF coordination, it said.

Fighting also raged in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, an area previously conquered by troops but where forces have recently been redeployed. Airstrikes rocked sites across the Strip, including attacks on cells operating drones in southern Gaza and the coastal Shati area of Gaza City.

The Gaza health ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, said early Sunday that 98 people had been killed overnight, with the Hamas media office reporting strikes along the length of the territory, from Beit Lahia in the north to Rafah in the south. The figures cannot be verified and do not differentiate between fighters and civilians.

According to the Hamas, 29,606 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war, two-thirds of them women and children. Israel says its troops have killed more than 12,000 terror operatives.

Amid concerns of a worsening humanitarian crisis in the Strip, with shortages of food, water and medicine reported, the health ministry said on Saturday that a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of “malnutrition” in Gaza City.

Save the Children said the risk of famine would continue to “increase as long as the government of Israel continues to impede the entry of aid into Gaza.”

Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 19, 2024. (Mohammed Dahman/AP)

Israel has defended its track record of allowing aid into Gaza, saying that 13,000 trucks carrying relief supplies had entered the territory since the start of the war.

An AFP reporter said there were a number of airstrikes on Saturday evening in Rafah, a city along the territory’s southern border with Egypt where hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled to escape fighting elsewhere.

The presence of so many civilians packed into the area has sparked concerns over Israeli plans for troops to finally push into the city, the last major urban center the military has yet to enter.

But hopes that the offensive may be staved off rose over the weekend as talks in Paris were held between Israel, American, Egyptian, and Qatari representatives produced the outline of a deal to free hostages and pause the fighting. It remained to be seen how Hamas would respond to the latest proposal, but reports said the terror group has softened its position on some points.

Multiple reports indicated the outline includes the release in the first phase of some 40 hostages held in Gaza, consisting of women, children, female soldiers, and elderly and ill abductees, along with a pause in fighting of some six weeks.

It also includes the release by Israel of hundreds of Palestinian terror convicts, and a “redeployment” of Israeli troops within Gaza — but not a complete withdrawal as Hamas had previously demanded. The outline would also reportedly see Israel enable the return of Palestinian women and children to northern Gaza, from where hundreds of thousands evacuated during the fighting, and which Israel has kept cut off from the rest of the enclave.

Palestinians flee their homes along with their belongings following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled Saturday night that the expected push into Rafah had not been abandoned, adding that “at the beginning of the week, I will convene the cabinet to approve the operational plans for action in Rafah, including the evacuation of the civilian population from there.”

“Only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages, the elimination of Hamas, and the achievement of all the war’s goals,” he added.

Israel’s global allies have voiced deep concerns over the harm an offensive could cause, with the city full to bursting with civilian refugees from throughout the Strip.

A view of a makeshift tent camp for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 18, 2024. (Mohammed Dahman/AP)

Rafah has swelled in size in recent weeks. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have splayed out across the town in tents or at the homes of friends or relatives. The estimated 1.5 million people sheltering there — more than half of Gaza’s population — have nowhere to flee in the face of an offensive that has leveled large swaths of the urban landscape in the rest of the territory.

UN officials warn that an attack on Rafah will be catastrophic, with more than 600,000 children in the path of an assault. A move in the town and surrounding area also could cause the collapse of the humanitarian aid system struggling to keep Gaza’s population alive.

Israel says it must take Rafah to ensure Hamas’s destruction and to free the remaining hostages held by terrorists.

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