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News / Nation & World

21 Israeli troops are killed in the deadliest attack on the military since the Gaza offensive began

By JOSEF FEDERMAN, SAMY MAGDY and NAJIB JOBAIN, JOSEF FEDERMAN, SAMY MAGDY and NAJIB JOBAIN, Associated Press
Published: January 23, 2024, 8:33am
3 Photos
Israeli soldiers move on the top of a tank near the Israeli-Gaza border, as seen from southern Israel, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.
Israeli soldiers move on the top of a tank near the Israeli-Gaza border, as seen from southern Israel, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa) Photo Gallery

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinian militants carried out the deadliest single attack on Israel’s forces since the Hamas raid that triggered the war, killing 21 soldiers, the military said Tuesday, a significant setback that could add to mounting calls for a cease-fire.

Hours later, the military announced that ground forces had encircled the southern city of Khan Younis, Gaza’s second largest. That marked a major advance, but it was unclear how much closer it would bring Israel to defeating Hamas or freeing Israeli hostages — two central war aims that have proved increasingly elusive — as cease-fire talks appear to be gathering pace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mourned the soldiers, who died when the blast from a rocket-propelled grenade triggered explosives they were laying. But he vowed to press ahead until “absolute victory,” even as Israelis are increasingly divided over whether it’s possible to both crush Hamas and free scores of captives.

A senior Egyptian official said Israel has proposed a two-month cease-fire in which the hostages would be freed in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel and top Hamas leaders in Gaza would be allowed to relocate to other countries.

The official, who was not authorized to brief media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hamas rejected the proposal and is insisting that no more hostages will be released until Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. Israel’s government declined to comment on the talks.

Egypt and Qatar — which have brokered past agreements between Israel and Hamas — were developing a multistage proposal to try to bridge the gaps, the official said. Families of the hostages have called for Israel to reach a deal with Hamas, saying time is running out to bring their relatives home alive.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas crossed the border Oct. 7, killing over 1,200 people and abducting some 250 others. More than 100 were released in November during a weeklong cease-fire.

The offensive has caused widespread death and destruction, displaced an estimated 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and left one-quarter facing starvation. Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have meanwhile attacked U.S. and Israeli targets in support of the Palestinians.

The U.S. and Britain launched another wave of strikes Monday against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have targeted international shipping in the Red Sea. Lebanon’s Hezbollah group said it fired rockets at a strategic military installation in northern Israel for a second time this month.

‘ONE OF THE HARDEST DAYS’ FOR ISRAEL

Israeli reservists were preparing explosives on Monday to demolish two buildings near the built-up Maghazi refugee camp as well as the Israeli border when a militant fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a tank nearby. The blast triggered the explosives, causing both two-story buildings to collapse on the soldiers.

At least 217 soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began in late October, including three killed in a separate event Monday, according to the military.

Netanyahu acknowledged on social media that it was “one of the hardest days” of the war but vowed to keep up the offensive.

“We are in the middle of a war that is more than justified. In this war, we are making big achievements, like the encircling of Khan Younis, and there are also very heavy losses,” he later said in a video statement.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said Tuesday that the bodies of 195 people killed in Israeli strikes were brought to hospitals in the previous 24 hours. Hospitals also received 354 wounded, it said.

The fatalities brought the death toll in the strip to 25,490 since the war began, the ministry said. Another 63,354 were wounded, it added. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

HEAVY FIGHTING IN KHAN YOUNIS

Israel claims to have killed thousands of militants and to have largely defeated Hamas in northern Gaza in operations that caused widespread destruction to that part of the territory, including Gaza City. In recent weeks the offensive has focused on Khan Younis and refugee camps in central Gaza, including Maghazi, that date back to the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.

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The military said its forces had killed dozens of militants in Khan Younis in recent days and had encircled the city, without providing evidence. It was not possible to independently confirm those claims.

Raed al-Nems, a spokesperson for the Palestine Red Crescent rescue service, said there was heavy fighting around the city’s Al-Amal Hospital. He said a shell had hit the fourth floor, killing one person and wounding 10 others. Medical teams were unable to enter or exit the hospital, and a territory-wide communication outage had further complicated rescue efforts, he said.

Thousands of people fled Khan Younis on Tuesday, some on foot with only what they could carry. Thick, black smoke could be seen rising over the city.

“We heard very intense shelling, and we couldn’t sleep all night because we were so afraid,” Ibtisam Abu Jommaiza said as she made her way out of the city.

Israel believes Hamas commanders may be hiding in vast tunnel complexes beneath Khan Younis, the hometown of the group’s top leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar, whose location is unknown. Hamas leaders are also believed to be using hostages as human shields, further complicating any rescue efforts.

PRESSURE FOR A CEASE-FIRE

The growing death toll and dire humanitarian situation have led to increasing international pressure on Israel to scale back the offensive and agree to a path for the creation of a Palestinian state after the war. The United States, which has provided crucial military aid for the offensive, has joined those calls.

But Netanyahu, whose popularity has plummeted since Oct. 7 and whose governing coalition is beholden to far-right parties, has rebuffed both demands.

Instead, he has said Israel will need to expand operations and eventually take over the Gaza side of the border with Egypt — an area where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have fled from other areas are packed into overflowing U.N.-run shelters and sprawling tent camps.

That drew an angry protest from Egypt’s government, which rejected Israeli allegations that Hamas smuggles in weapons across the heavily guarded frontier.

Diaa Rashwan, head of Egypt’s State Information Service, said Monday that any Israeli move to occupy the border area would “lead to a serious threat” to relations between the two countries, which signed a landmark peace treaty over four decades ago. Egypt is also deeply concerned about any potential influx of Palestinian refugees into its Sinai Peninsula.

This story has been updated to correct that the attack on Israeli soldiers took place near Maghazi, not in Maghazi.

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