The 21 Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were killed in a Hamas RPG attack in the Gaza Strip on Monday fell on a mission to enable the safe return of civilians to devastated Israeli communities near the border, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi said on Tuesday.
“The State of Israel woke up this morning to a difficult and painful announcement: 21 dead,” stated Halevi in a video message released on Tuesday evening. “The best sons of this country, who volunteered to defend their homes and paid the highest price. We share in their families’ grief for their heavy loss and know that the pain is unbearable.”
“If there is any consolation in this, I would like the families to know—they fell in battle during a defensive operation near the border fence, in the buffer zone between the Israeli towns and Gaza,” said Halevi, adding: “This is a mission whose entire purpose is to create secure conditions for the residents of the Gaza Envelope to return to their homes safely.”
The troops were killed in central Gaza when two buildings collapsed due to a blast, IDF Spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said earlier on Tuesday. The incident occurred some 2,000 feet from the border, near the northwestern Negev community of Kibbutz Kissufim, as Israeli forces were clearing terror infrastructure in the buffer zone.
According to Hagari, terrorists fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a tank securing the forces. Simultaneously, two two-story buildings collapsed as a result of an explosion when most of the soldiers were inside or near them. The blast was apparently caused by explosives placed by Israeli forces, intended to destroy the buildings in a controlled detonation.
“We, as always, will investigate the incident in depth and learn the lessons while ensuring that such an incident will not happen again,” Halevi stressed on Tuesday following a visit to the scene of the deadly incident and receiving a detailed briefing on the ongoing internal probe into the blast.
“On this difficult day, it is important to say [that] we have been fighting for 108 days, and we do not forget Oct. 7; we do not forget why we went to war,” Halevi stated.
Monday marked the deadliest single day for the Israeli military since the start of its ground operation against Hamas on Oct. 27, as another three soldiers were killed in battle in southern Gaza.
‘Found a strategic transport tunnel’
Over the past few days, IDF forces have expanded their operations in the Hamas stronghold of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, in addition to “deepening achievements in northern Gaza,” added the chief of staff.
The battle inside the city, which includes parts of the IDF’s Givati Infantry Brigade, 7th Armored Brigade, paratroopers and commando forces, commenced on Sunday and is expected to last several days.
A 7th Brigade team, in cooperation with the Combat Engineering Corps’ elite Yahalom unit, discovered a Hamas command and control center under Khan Yunis located in the heart of a residential neighborhood and near schools, the IDF said on Tuesday.
As the forces advanced towards the Hamas hub, terrorists opened fire with small arms and RPG missiles in an attempt to prevent them from entering the tunnels. Terrorists also blew up the entryway. The soldiers returned fire and killed many terrorists during close-quarters combat, the IDF said.
Following the battle, troops uncovered a tunnel network almost 5,000 feet long, as well as a rocket factory. Among other discoveries, the soldiers found “a strategic transport tunnel” with rails meant to move rockets to different locations in the Strip.
Meanwhile, the IDF’s 630th Reserve Battalion operated on the outskirts of Khan Yunis, where it worked to locate and destroy “dozens” of attack tunnels and other elements of the underground terror infrastructure.
During a visit to the Eliyakim Training Base near Haifa on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told officers in training that the war in Gaza would continue until the Hamas “monsters” are defeated.
“There is no substitute for victory. I have heard commentators in studios who explain, ‘This is not possible. This is not necessary.’ It is possible, it is necessary, and we have no other choice. Total victory,” vowed Netanyahu.