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IDF expands Gaza ops, digs deep into Khan Yunis tunnel system

Israeli military releases results of investigation into accidental fire that killed three hostages; since Oct. 7, casualties of Israel Defense Forces reach 501.

Israeli troops operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Dec. 29, 2023. Credit: IDF.
Israeli troops operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Dec. 29, 2023. Credit: IDF.

The Israel Defense Forces are fighting in tunnels underneath Khan Yunis, Hamas’s stronghold in the southern Gaza Strip, said IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari on Thursday evening.

Hagari said finding the tunnel shafts, destroying Hamas terror infrastructure and the killing of terrorists is a lengthy process. “These are ambitious but important war aims because there is no other way to defeat Hamas, and it will take time,” he said.

In the north, Hagari said the IDF struck targets on Thursday in a way that was “painful to Hezbollah.”

The overall military casualty count, including from the Oct. 7 mass-murder attacks Hamas perpetrated in Israel, reached 501 on Thursday after the IDF announced that three more soldiers were killed in action in the Strip.

They are Sgt. Maj. Asaf Pinhas Tubul, 22, from the 7th Armored Brigade; Capt. Neriya Zisk, 24, from the 401st Armored Brigade; and Maj. Dvir David Fima, 32, from the 460th Light Armored Brigade. Tubul was killed in southern Gaza, while Zisk and Fima were killed in northern Gaza.

Separately, the IDF said that it had recovered more than 65 million files and another half a million documents, as well as operational plans, and combat doctrine from Hamas during the ground offensive so far.

The military said that its Intelligence and Technical Haul Collection Unit in the Military Intelligence Directorate has been in charge of sifting through the material. The unit is primarily composed of reserve service personnel, and its role is to extract intelligence from the haul captured by all the combat forces in the field.

“The maneuvering of IDF forces in Hamas strongholds and transferring the material for in-depth research adds a significant link to the intelligence pictures from the tactical to the strategic level and allows intelligence insights to come back to the operational edge,” said the IDF. “The materials are researched according to their type and in partnership with various collection and research bodies in the intelligence community.”

Intelligence retrieved include a map and a legend recovered by the IDF’s 252 Division in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, enabling the IDF to locate tunnel shafts in the field and to destroy many of them.

In the north, a large number of launches were carried out from the towns of Ayta ash Shab and Ramyeh in southern Lebanon towards Israeli territory. Since Thursday morning, Israeli Air Force aircraft, as well as IDF tanks and artillery, struck Hezbollah terror infrastructure in those areas.

Also on Thursday, in response to the launches that were carried out towards Israeli territory, IAF aircraft struck a Hezbollah military compound.

A terrorist squad that attempted to launch anti-tank missiles into Israeli territory was struck by the IDF as well. In addition, a terrorist squad hiding inside a residence where launches were carried out was also hit.

Following the sirens that sounded in the Krayot area in northern Israel, just north of Haifa, an unmanned aerial vehicle was identified crossing from Lebanon into Israeli territory and intercepted by the IDF’s Aerial Defense Array.

Moreover, overnight and earlier on Thursday morning, the IDF struck in several areas in Lebanon.

Hezbollah in Lebanon
An exchange of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah terrorists on the border between Israel and Lebanon, Dec. 27, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90

Learn lessons from the incident

Also on Thursday evening, the IDF announced the findings of its investigation into the circumstances of the deaths of three hostages from IDF fire.

The incident occurred on Dec. 15 during intense days of fighting in Shejaia, in northern Gaza, when an IDF soldier fired towards three figures, identified as threats, and hit two of the hostages who were killed. The third figure fled.

“The commanders gave orders to hold fire in order to identify the third figure. After approximately 15 minutes, the battalion commander heard shouts in Hebrew of ‘help’ and ‘they are shooting at me,’ and gave additional orders to hold fire, calling out in Hebrew ‘come toward us.’ The figure emerged from a building toward the forces. Two soldiers, who did not hear the order due to noise from a nearby tank, shot at and killed the third hostage,” the investigation found.

“From the investigation and analysis of the findings and aerial footage of the area, it was revealed that the hostages were walking shirtless, and one of them was waving a white flag, standing at a point with limited visibility relative to the position of the soldier that fired the shot,” continued the report. “At the end of the event, after clearing and scanning the area, a suspicion arose that the individuals were hostages. The bodies were transferred for examination in Israel, after which it was confirmed that they were three Israeli hostages.”

The investigation concluded that the command ranks “had information about the presence of hostages in the Shejaia area and even took actions to prevent strikes on locations suspected of having hostages inside. In this case, there was no intelligence about either building where the hostages were in.”

In addition, the investigation found that “as part of the assessments on the issue, special forces brigades were prepared in every combat zone, immediately available for intervention in case a force identified a building with hostages inside. However,” it found, “there was insufficient awareness among the forces in the field in the case of hostages reaching IDF forces, or [of cases] when the forces would encounter hostages during the clearing of buildings as part of combat and not as part of a special operation to free hostages.”

The military stressed that “IDF soldiers involved in the incident experienced complex combat situations in the days preceding the incident and were in a state of high alert for a threat. During the battles, they encountered deceptions by the enemy and attempts to draw them into pits and buildings rigged with explosives.”

IDF Chief of Staff LT. Gen. Halevi stated that the military “failed in its mission to rescue the hostages in this event. The entire chain of command feels responsible for this difficult event, regrets this outcome and shares in the grief of the families of the three hostages.”

He added that “the hits on the hostages could have been prevented. Alongside this, the chief of staff clarified that there was no malice in the event, and the soldiers carried out the right action to the best of their understanding of the event at that moment.”

Halevi instructed all commanders to learn lessons from the incident and immediately conveyed them to the fighting forces to prevent the recurrence of similar cases as best as possible. In addition, he instructed that awareness among forces in the field be raised “to the presence of hostages in the combat area, including their locations, their photographs and various findings about them.”

The findings were presented to the families of the hostages.

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