Israeli Forces Push Deeper into Gaza as Invasion Expands, Risks Multiply

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of Sgt. Ido Ovadia, 19, during a funeral held at the Kiryat Shaol military funeral in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Ovadia, a soldier in the Saber Battalion in the Givati ​​Brigade, was killed in Gaza on Tuesday.

OKAFIM, southern Israel – Israeli forces set on crushing Hamas pushed toward urban centers in northern Gaza on Thursday, as limited raids give way to a full-fledged ground invasion, bringing new perils for petrified civilians who remain in their homes.

“We are at the height of war,” Gen. Herzi Halevi, Israel’s chief of staff, said in a news conference at Palmachim Air Force Base on Thursday, saying troops were “surrounding” Gaza City from “a number of different angles.”

“Our forces are engaged in face-to-face combat against a cruel enemy, but the advantage is clear.”

As he spoke, the Palestinian Red Crescent reported that a hospital it runs in the south of Gaza City had been hit by gunfire from Israeli military vehicles about half a mile to the southwest, injuring two civilians outside. Video taken from the hospital yard showed intense bombardment in the surrounding area.

Details on Israel’s ground offensive remain scarce, with journalists unable to enter the Gaza Strip and regular communications blackouts. Updates from the Israel Defense Forces are vaguely worded, and Hamas has ordered Gazans not to publish information on military movements.

But interviews with residents, experts and Israeli soldiers, as well as videos and satellite imagery from the battlefield, point to a growing, bloody operation on several fronts. As some military units attempt to divide the enclave in two, cutting the north from the south, others are pushing from the east and northwest toward Hamas’s stronghold in Gaza City.

Initial incursions to target tunnels and remove explosives have paved the way for armored columns, as Israel attempts to punch through Hamas’s defensive lines. As the fight intensifies, the IDF says 20 soldiers have been killed over the past 72 hours – more than a quarter of the entire toll during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza. Reservists have taken over positions in the staging grounds that ring Gaza as front line troops move deeper into the enclave.

“Before it was 100 percent, now it’s 200 percent,” was how a 33-year-old soldier from the Israel Defense Forces’ Givati Brigade described the operation. His unit has already lost 13 soldiers. Like others in this story, he spoke to The Washington Post spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with military rules.

Though the ground war is in its early stages, Israel’s aerial assault has already taken a devastating toll on Gaza. More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, including more than 3,000 children.

With forces now on the ground, an Israeli artilleryman told The Post that threats to civilians were a secondary concern. “In the beginning we tried to do it with less civilians there,” he said of his unit’s artillery strikes. “Now it’s a war.”

Describing a situation where militants were firing from the roof of a building known to house civilians, the artilleryman put his objectives simply: “The IDF comes first.”

Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the IDF, said the security of troops is “paramount,” but that Israeli forces operate “according to the laws of armed conflict.” Israel has blamed civilian deaths on Hamas, saying the group intentionally embeds its fighters and infrastructure in residential areas.

While Israel said Wednesday its troops are at the “gates of Gaza City,” they are not currently holding territory, according to Conricus. “Not yet,” he said, indicating that the real push is yet to come.

“Obviously right now there is a massive ground operation,” said Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official and analyst. “We don’t have lots of details, the IDF is intentionally, deliberately keeping it covered with fog, so to speak.”

But it’s obvious, he said: “The motion is in one direction, the motion is toward Gaza City.”

The brutal fight that probably awaits Israeli troops there was foreshadowed this week in the Jabalya refugee camp, east of Gaza City, where forces have been operating for several days, according to the military.

Eleven Israeli soldiers were inside an armored vehicle in the area on Tuesday, Conricus told The Post, when Hamas militants hit it with an antitank missile. Nine of the soldiers were killed and two were seriously wounded.

Their unit had been fighting for five days “deep behind enemy lines,” Maj. Eden Haviv, an officer with the Givati Brigade, said the next day during the eulogy for a 20-year-old sergeant killed in the vehicle. His coffin, draped in the Israeli flag, was lowered into a grave at a military cemetery in Modi’in.

“You and your friends fought heroically and killed many insurgents,” she said. “You died with your brothers in arms.”

Later in the day Tuesday, just before 2:30 p.m., the Israeli air force unleashed a devastating airstrike on Jabalya, which it said was aimed at Ibrahim Biari – the Hamas commander who was leading the fight against IDF forces in the area in “real time,” Conricus said, and who had long been on Israel’s hit list.

Biari was killed in the strike, the IDF said – a claim Hamas disputes – but so were more than 110 people in the tightly-packed refugee camp, according to the directors of two local hospitals. Most of the victims appeared to be civilians. The attack was condemned by aid groups and diplomats, and led to renewed international calls for a cease fire.

While Israel has repeatedly urged civilians to leave the north, hundreds of thousands of Gazans have stayed. Some lack the means to travel, others fear dying along the way, or being attacked in the south, where the IDF has continued to carry out strikes.

The scenes in Jabalya, which the IDF described as a “terrorist fortress” – both underground and above – were reminiscent of one of the most notorious battles of the 2014 Gaza war in the eastern neighborhood of Shujaiya.

Seven Israeli soldiers were killed in the early stages of the assault there when their armored vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. At least 55 Palestinians were killed in the battle, which featured intense airstrikes and artillery. A U.N. commission of inquiry the following year said that Israel may have committed war crimes in Shujaiya. Warning civilians to leave an area does not absolve the military of its obligations to protect human life, investigators said.

Satellite imagery shows Israeli forces are also pushing from the northeast, while the IDF has released video of troops making their way on foot along the coast toward Gaza City, the sea visible in the background. The military on Thursday that a Navy missile boat had struck “buildings rigged with explosives” and observation posts as “part of its efforts to support IDF ground troops.”

Other footage showed a tank firing among battle scarred buildings and troops making their way down a rubble strewn street. A resident of northeast Gaza, where another push has been reported near the city of Beit Hanoun, told The Post he had heard clashes for several days as Israeli tanks tried to break through. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for his own safety.

In the last days of October, when Israel announced its war had entered a “second phase,” operations were limited in scope, according to a 35-year-old reservist with the Golani Brigade. Some were dedicated to retrieving the bodies of Israeli victims “left in the field” by Hamas as its forces fled back to Gaza on Oct. 7, having killed more than 1,400 people and taken some 230 hostages.

One 21-year-old Israeli soldier described a battle this week with an estimated 50 Hamas fighters in an orchard on the edge of Gaza City. Several of his friends were killed on Oct. 7 as militants gunned down partygoers at a rave in southern Israel. The battle felt personal this time.

“It’s hard to try and put it aside,” he said.