newsIsrael at War

Between Gaza and Rafah

‘There is no stagnation, we strike the enemy where needed’

A reporter joins the tanks of the IDF’s 77th Battalion in a strategic effort to dismantle Hamas and restore security to the area.

Troops from the IDF’s Battalion 77 in Khan Yunis, the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by Neta Bar.
Troops from the IDF’s Battalion 77 in Khan Yunis, the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by Neta Bar.

Al-Qarara, a town northeast of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, is positioned on a ridge. To its west lies the Mediterranean Sea, and to its east, the Israeli towns that border the Gaza Strip.

Al-Qarara, primarily a suburban and agricultural area, became the point of origin for numerous Hamas terrorists who carried out a brutal assault on Israel on Oct. 7. Amid its olive groves, adorned with yellow spring flowers, lie the concealed entrances to the underground Hamas tunnels.

As the tanks of the Israel Defense Forces 7th Armored Brigade traverse the area, they kick up vast clouds of dust, moving with engineering units tasked with clearing obstacles and uncovering terrorist infrastructure above and beneath the ground. Intermittently, the silence is broken by gunfire or the distinctive boom of a tank shell.

This marks the advance of the brigade’s 77th Battalion, delving into previously uncharted territories of what has become the epicenter of terrorism in the Gaza Strip. This offensive push is juxtaposed with media narratives of “stagnation” and political assertions by figures such as former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who dismiss the operations in Gaza as “routine security measures.”

Contrary to these claims, officers in the field assert: “There is no stagnation, these are fabrications. We are fighting an enemy that conducts guerrilla warfare. There is no point in being everywhere all the time. We strike precisely where needed.”

Lt. Col. Shimon Potarbani. Photo by Neta Bar.

Lt. Col. Shimon Potarbani, commander of the 77th Battalion, has been fighting in the Gaza periphery and in the Strip since the Hamas invasion of the Negev.

“Hamas terrorists launched the October 7 attack from the vicinity of Qarara. Our mission focuses on eliminating the terrorists, locating and dismantling their subterranean networks, thereby mitigating the threat,” Potarbani says.

A profound challenge

Since the outbreak of the war, Potarbani and his battalion have been at the vanguard, encountering the initial wave of terrorists on the morning of Oct. 7. They navigated through Israeli residential areas, engaging the enemy in direct combat.

“I must admit, the experience was harrowing,” he reflects. “To enter a home, witness the aftermath of a brutal attack, where a resident was murdered and his wife and daughter were hiding in a closet, and we don’t even have time to say anything because we have to press forward in pursuit of the terrorists, was a profound challenge.”

In the subsequent months, the 77th Battalion has pursued terrorists across Gaza, from the northern reaches to Gaza City, Shifa Hospital and Khan Yunis. Its recent operations included a significant engagement near the Hamad Towers and the Qatari neighborhood west of Khan Yunis, where they discovered a major terrorist facility hidden beneath the greenhouses of Ganei Tal, the moshav that was from which Israel withdrew in 2005 as part of the disengagement from Gaza.

Potarbani remains undeterred by claims of “stagnation” or a shift towards “routine security measures” in Gaza. He firmly believes that revisiting locations like Shifa Hospital, previously secured by the IDF, does not signify a setback.

“The military’s resolve is unshaken, recognizing that Hamas exploits every available opportunity, especially in locations like hospitals, which enjoy a certain degree of immunity. We are prepared to reassert control over such sites as often as necessary. Our focus is not on territorial possession but on the elimination of the terrorist threat and their infrastructure,” he clarifies.

77th Battalion tanks in Khan Yunis. Photo by Neta Bar.

Potarbani’s resolve is shared by Ali, a Muslim Bedouin reservist from a town in northern Israel.

“Defending my country and state is my duty. The challenges post-Oct. 7 were immense, but since I joined the fighting, I feel focused and needed,” he says.

Ali is also navigating the personal challenge of observing the Ramadan fast while fighting.

“Though Islam permits exceptions under such conditions, I strive to observe the fast, balancing my religious obligations with the operational demands placed upon me.”

In the vicinity, buildings bear the scars of conflict, with missing windows and doors, their surfaces covered in graffiti. One message read: “The body is in Gaza, the heart is in India,” likely spray-painted by an Israeli soldier wishing he was not fighting, but vacationing.

Potarbani expressed disapproval of such actions. “Such behavior is contrary to our mission,” he insists.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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