GAZA/JERUSALEM: Twenty-four Israeli soldiers were killed in Israel’s worst day of losses in Gaza, the military said on Tuesday, as its forces encircled southern Gaza’s main city, trapping Palestinian residents trying to flee.
Spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said 21 soldiers were killed when two buildings they had mined for demolition exploded after militants fired at a nearby tank. Earlier, three soldiers were reported killed in a separate attack.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mourned the soldiers, who died when the blast from a rocket-propelled grenade triggered explosives they were laying. But he vowed to press ahead until “absolute victory,” even as Israelis are increasingly divided over whether it’s possible to both crush Hamas and free scores of captives.
“Yesterday we experienced one of our most difficult days since the war erupted,” Netanyahu said.
“In the name of our heroes, for the sake of our lives, we will not stop fighting until absolute victory.” The deaths came the day the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched their biggest operation in a month, to seize remaining parts of Khan Younis, Gaza’s main southern city, which is sheltering hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians.
“Over the past day, IDF troops carried out an extensive operation during which they encircled Khan Younis,” the military said.
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“Ground troops engaged in close-quarters combat, directed strikes and used intelligence to coordinate fire, resulting in the elimination of dozens of terrorists.” Israeli tanks, advancing west towards the Mediterranean, shut the road out towards the coast on Tuesday, blocking the escape route for civilians trying to reach Rafah, the last town on Gaza’s southern edge - now crammed with more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million people.
“I am trying to leave for Rafah but the tanks are now very near to the coast and are firing toward the west,” Shaban, 45, an electrical engineer with four children, said by phone.
At least 195 Palestinians were killed in the space of 24 hours, raising the documented toll to 25,490, according to Palestinian health officials, who say thousands more dead are feared lost in the rubble.
CUT-OFF HOSPITAL BECOMES MAKESHIFT CEMETERY
The advancing Israelis have blockaded hospitals, which Palestinian officials say makes it impossible to rescue the dead and wounded. At the European Hospital, reached by Reuters in southern Khan Younis, Ahed Masmah brought in five corpses, piled on a mattress on his donkey cart.
“I found them face-down in the street,” he said. “I did a good thing and brought them in.” At Khan Younis’s main Nasser hospital, the biggest still functioning in the Gaza Strip, bodies were being buried on the grounds because it was unsafe to go out to the cemetery. Footage filmed by Palestinian journalist Hamdan Al Dahdouh showed persistent gunfire hitting the top of the main building.
“I am besieged at Nasser Hospital now and my life is in great danger. The smell of death, the only smell I know, is filling the place,” Dr Mahmoud Abu Shammala posted on Facebook.
“I lived this war as a hero, and if I die I will die a hero.”
Another Khan Younis hospital, Al Khair, was stormed by Israeli troops who arrested staff, according to Palestinian officials. Al Amal Hospital was unreachable; the Red Crescent which runs it said a tank shell had hit its fourth-floor headquarters there, a civilian had been killed at the entrance and Israelis were firing from drones on anyone who moved nearby, making it impossible to dispatch ambulances.
Israel says Hamas fighters operate in and around hospitals, which hospital staff and Hamas deny.
“Terrified staff, patients and displaced people are now trapped inside the few remaining hospitals in Khan Younis as heavy fighting continues,” Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N.
Palestinian relief agency UNRWA, said in a statement.
He said six displaced people had been killed and many injured at one of the biggest UN-run shelters in Khan Younis: “I call on all parties to take every precaution to minimise harm and protect civilians, medical facilities and personnel and U.N. premises in accordance with international law.”
HAMAS SAYS IT IS ONLY GETTING STRONGER
Palestinians hailed the Israeli losses as a victory.
“The resistance said it is going to make Gaza a graveyard for the occupation, and this is what is happening” said Abu Khaled, sheltering in a school in Deir Al Balah just north of Khan Younis.
Israelis spoke of the losses as a necessary sacrifice in a war against Hamas fighters who attacked Israeli towns on October 7, killing 1,200 people and capturing some 250 hostages.
“You know, it’s our sons, it’s our brothers, it’s terrible - but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do so that October7 doesn’t happen again,” said Blina Rhodes on the street in Jerusalem.
Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction and has controlled Gaza since 2007.
Sami Abu Zuhri, head of the political office of Hamas in exile, said the Israeli losses were proof that the armed wing of Hamas was only getting stronger.
“We call on the American administration to stop this pointless policy and stop betting on the possibility of weakening or finishing Hamas,” he said by phone from an undisclosed location.
Though the war still has overwhelming public support in Israel, discontent is emerging with Netanyahu’s strategy - annihilating Hamas but with only vague discussion of what should follow and no talk since November of a ceasefire to free the more than 100 hostages still in Gaza.
Their relatives have demanded more effort to free them, even if that means slowing the war.
Since last week, Netanyahu has publicly vowed never to allow an independent Palestinian state, disavowing the decades-old bedrock of Middle East policy of Israel’s main ally, Washington.