IDF expands operations south of Gaza City as large rocket salvo targets Tel Aviv area
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Israel at WarAbout 30 rockets fired at Israel

IDF expands operations south of Gaza City as large rocket salvo targets Tel Aviv area

Dozens of projectiles shatter nearly two-day stretch without missiles from Strip; 3 troops killed, taking ground op toll to 137; Hamas says it won’t negotiate under fire

Troops of the IDF's 99th Division operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout image published Dec. 21, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
Troops of the IDF's 99th Division operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout image published Dec. 21, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces announced Thursday that it had expanded its ground operation in the central Gaza Strip to new areas, as Palestinian terrorists fired dozens of rockets at southern and central Israel, putting a violent end to a period of nearly two days in which no projectiles were shot at the country from Gaza as the war on terror group Hamas continues.

According to the IDF, the 99th Division maneuvered into new areas of central Gaza to establish “operational control” south of Gaza City and north of the so-called central camps of central Gaza.

During the operation, the division’s 179th Reserve Armored Brigade and 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade killed members of Hamas’s Nuseirat battalion and destroyed the terror group’s infrastructure, including tunnels and weapon depots, the IDF statement added.

An airstrike was also carried out against a Hamas cell firing RPGs from a municipal building amid the operation.

The salvo on central Israel punctured the hope that the military’s offensive has damaged Gazan terrorists’ ability to fire rockets. The IDF has still been warning civilians to follow the Home Front Command’s emergency instructions, even as rocket fire from Gaza has slowed significantly as the war progresses.

Reports indicated some 30 rockets were fired at Israel, by far the largest barrage to target the country in at least several days.

Reports on the ground and footage posted online indicate several rockets were intercepted over the skies of central Israel and the south.

Near Kfar Saba, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Gaza, a Times of Israel correspondent reported hearing at least eight loud booms.

A school in Tel Aviv was struck by shrapnel, though all students were safe and had reached bomb shelters.

Footage published online also showed various shards of rockets and interceptor missiles strewn about streets in the Tel Aviv area, including a large fragment that landed on a path in a Kiryat Ono park, and another that landed on a road in Herzliya.

In a few cases, light damage was reported, but the Magen David Adom rescue service said there were no reports of injuries.

Shortly before the barrage on central Israel, Hamas announced that it would not hold negotiations to release some of the 129 hostages its terrorists have been holding since October 7 unless Israel completely halts its offensive.

The declaration, which has been trotted out by the terror group before, came amid intense talks for a possible deal that would see hostages released from Gaza in exchange for Palestinian security inmates in Israeli prisons.

A statement attributed by various Hebrew media outlets to an Israeli official said the Gaza-ruling terror group was trying to condition the release of hostages on the war ending.

“It won’t happen,” the unnamed source said.

Hamas had already claimed it would not accept a temporary truce like the last deal in November. During that lull, 105 hostages were set free and Israel released 240 Palestinian security prisoners, all of them women or minors, and also boosted humanitarian aid to Gaza. The seven-day truce, which could have been extended further, ended when Hamas violated the terms, according to Israeli officials.

Rocket attacks on Thursday began in the morning with at least three salvos fired at areas close to the border with Gaza, where communities have largely been evacuated since the war started.

They were the first projectiles fired out of Gaza in over 40 hours, by far the longest respite from rockets since October 7, minus the weeklong truce last month.

The rockets were fired from central Gaza, an area where the IDF has only partial control, though it began to expand operations there on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the IDF said the division’s Yiftah Brigade was continuing to clear the western neighborhoods of Gaza City of Hamas infrastructure.

During their operations, the IDF said troops found several weapons, some hidden inside dolls and under children’s beds, adding that the weapons caches were later destroyed by combat engineers.

Earlier Thursday, the IDF announced the deaths of three more soldiers on the 76th day of fighting, bringing the military’s toll from the ground operation in the Gaza Strip to 137.

War erupted when Hamas carried out a massive terror attack in southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and abducting more than 240 hostages into Gaza.

An IDF soldier stands guard near Palestine Square in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood, Dec. 19, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Meanwhile, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir hit out at the war cabinet and called for it to be disbanded, in light of speculation that the IDF’s intensive military campaign in Gaza may soon wind down in favor of lower-intensity operations, following international pressure.

“If anyone intends, God forbid, to halt the IDF before Hamas has been defeated and all the hostages have been returned, he should take into account that Otzma Yehudit will not be with him,” said the leader of the far-right party.

“The idea of reducing activity in Gaza is a failure of war management by the small [war] cabinet. It should be dismantled immediately. The time has come to restore the reins to the wider [security] cabinet,” the minister said.

The war cabinet comprises Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and National Unity leader and minister without portfolio Benny Gantz, who are the three voting members, along with two observers, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and minister without portfolio Gadi Eisenkot.

Ben Gvir has clashed with Gallant on numerous occasions, even before October 7, and has had a difficult relationship with Netanyahu.

His threat mirrors similar ones made this week by fellow firebrand Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who twice threatened implicitly to leave the government this week over policy toward the Palestinians and the governance of Gaza after the war.

Smotrich also voiced criticism of the government after National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi signaled that Israel may accept the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority taking control of Gaza after Hamas is removed. Hanegbi made the remarks in an opinion piece published by the Saudi-owned Elaph news site.

The column marked a sharp shift from Netanyahu’s avowed refusal to consider PA rule an option for postwar Gaza, arguing that the PA and Hamas are largely the same.

Smotrich upbraided Hanegbi’s comments, charging on X: “There are people here who are still living in October 6.”

“This position does not represent the position of the Israeli government, and the prime minister needs to call him to order. The Palestinian Authority is not the solution; it is a significant part of the problem,” he added. PJC

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