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Israeli forces suffered their most deadly day since the start of the ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza, with 24 Israeli soldiers killed, most of them in a single incident.
Reservist units were clearing houses in central Gaza on Monday when two buildings exploded and collapsed, killing 21 soldiers, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Three additional officers were reported killed during fierce fighting in the southern city of Khan Younis, bringing the IDF death toll during the ground operation to 219.
The death toll made it “one of the most difficult days since the outbreak of the war”, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday as he paid tribute to the soldiers and their families. “In the name of our heroes, for the sake of our lives, we will not stop fighting until absolute victory,” he added.
The PM has come under mounting pressure over his handling of the war, including from his war cabinet and from families of the remaining hostages seized during the surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.
But in a show of unity, the war cabinet — which consists of Netanyahu, defence minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz — issued a joint video statement on Tuesday expressing condolences to the casualties’ families and signalling their determination to continue the war until Hamas is defeated.
“I have no doubt that when [the soldiers] set out on their mission yesterday, they intended for us to continue, and that is what we will do,” said Gantz, a former military chief and centrist politician who joined Netanyahu’s emergency wartime government after the armed Palestinian group’s October attack.
Israeli forces had laid mines inside the buildings in central Gaza, about 600 metres from the border with Israel, ahead of a planned demolition. The mines are thought to have been set off by a rocket-propelled grenade fired at a nearby tank, although the cause of the explosion was still being investigated, said Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the chief IDF spokesperson, on Tuesday.
Israel launched a punishing air and ground offensive in Gaza with the goal of destroying the Palestinian militant group in response to its October 7 cross-border attack. At least 1,200 Israelis were killed in the assault and about 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli figures.
Almost 25,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to health authorities in the Hamas-ruled territory. International aid groups have warned of an unfolding humanitarian disaster in the enclave, where Israeli forces have reduced large swaths of territory to rubble and an estimated 80 per cent of residents have been displaced from their homes.
More than three months into the campaign, the IDF is still labouring to dismantle Hamas as a fighting and governing force, with the group’s senior leadership still alive and more than 130 Israeli hostages in captivity.
A weeklong ceasefire in late November facilitated the release of more than 100 Israeli hostages, but diplomatic efforts towards a renewed agreement have stalled amid growing pressure on the Israeli government at home and abroad.
Netanyahu has rejected the possibility of halting the war despite growing pleas by relatives of the remaining hostages to secure their release “at any cost”.
Senior opposition lawmakers, influential media figures and members of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, including former military chief Gadi Eisenkot, have indicated in recent weeks that the safe return of the hostages should take precedence over other war aims, including Hamas’s defeat.
“Contrary to what is being said, there is no genuine proposal by Hamas, this is not true,” Netanyahu told the hostages’ families at a meeting on Monday, in response to domestic critics demanding that his government does more to agree a new deal with the Palestinian militant group.
The prime minister said Hamas was demanding Israel end the war in Gaza, withdraw its forces, release members of the Nukhba unit that led the group’s October 7 attack on Israel and leave Hamas in power. “Were we to agree to this, our soldiers would have fallen in vain,” he said.
Lebanese militant group Hizbollah fired more than 10 rockets at northern Israel on Tuesday, claiming it hit a key Israeli military air control base at Meron. The IDF has so far not confirmed that the installation, which Hizbollah also claimed to have hit this month, was struck.
“We keep an eye on everything that happens in the north,” said Gallant. “Hizbollah continues and provokes . . . We are prepared, we do not want war, but we are ready for any situation that may develop in the north.”