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A weekend of combat in Gaza kills 14 Israeli soldiers, in sign of Hamas' entrenchment

Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip outside a morgue in Khan Younis on Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023.
Mohammed Dahman
/
AP
Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip outside a morgue in Khan Younis on Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Fourteen Israeli soldiers were killed in combat in the Gaza Strip over the weekend, the Israeli military said Sunday, in some of the bloodiest days of battle since the start of the ground offensive and a sign that Hamas is still putting up a fight despite weeks of brutal war.

The mounting death toll among Israeli troops is likely to play an important factor in Israeli public support for the war, which was sparked when Hamas-led militants stormed communities in southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 and taking 240 hostage. The war has devastated parts of the Gaza Strip, killed roughly 20,400 Palestinians and displaced nearly 85% of Gaza's 2.3 million people.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza said 166 people were killed in the coastal enclave over the past day.

Israelis still stand firmly behind the country's stated goals of crushing Hamas' governing and military capabilities and releasing the remaining 129 captives. That support has stayed mostly steady despite rising international pressure against Israel's offensive and the soaring death toll and unprecedented suffering among Palestinians.

But the growing number of dead soldiers could undermine that support. Soldiers' deaths are a sensitive and emotional topic in Israel, a country with compulsory military service for most Jews.

The names of fallen soldiers are announced at the top of hourly newscasts, and in a small country of about 9 million people, virtually every family knows a relative, friend or co-worker who has lost a family member in war.

HAMAS EXACTS A PRICE

The 14 Israeli soldiers killed on Friday and Saturday died in battles in central and southern Gaza, an indication of how Hamas is still putting up tough resistance against advancing Israeli troops, even as Israel claims to have dealt a serious blow to the militant group.

According to Israeli Army Radio, four soldiers were killed when their vehicle was struck by an anti-tank missile. The others were killed in separate, sporadic fighting.

Another soldier was killed in northern Israel by fire from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has kept up low-level fighting with Israel since the war with Hamas erupted, raising fears of a wider regional conflict.

Their deaths bring the number of Israeli soldiers killed since the ground offensive began to 153.

"The war exacts a very heavy price from us but we have no choice but to continue fighting," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of his Cabinet Sunday. "We are continuing with all the force, until the end, until victory, until we reach all our goals."

Even if Israelis have been supportive of the war effort, there has been widespread anger against Netanyahu's government, which many criticize for failing to protect civilians on Oct. 7 and promoting policies that allowed Hamas to gain strength over the years.

On Saturday night, thousands of people demonstrated in pouring rain in Tel Aviv, chanting "Bibi, Bibi, we don't want you anymore," referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

Netanyahu has avoided accepting responsibility for the military and policy failures leading up to Oct. 7, saying he would answer tough questions once the fighting is over.

EXPANDING THE OFFENSIVE

On Saturday, Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said forces were expanding their offensive in northern and southern Gaza and troops were fighting in "complex areas" in Khan Younis, Gaza's second-largest city, where Israel believes Hamas leaders are hiding.

Israel's offensive has been one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history and has claimed a staggering toll on Palestinian civilians. More than two-thirds of the 20,000 killed were women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Sunday morning that a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed by an Israeli drone attack while inside the building of al-Amal Hospital in Khan Younis. It provided no further details.

An Israeli strike overnight hit a house in a refugee camp west of the city of Rafah, on Gaza's borders with Egypt. At least two men were killed and their bodies taken to the Abu Yousef al-Najjar hospital, according to Associated Press journalists in the hospital.

Palestinians reported heavy Israeli bombardment and gunfire Sunday morning in the town of Jabaliya, an area north of Gaza City that Israel had previously claimed to control. Sounds of explosions and gunfire echoed across the town with Israeli warplanes flying over the area, they said. Hamas' military arm said its fighters shelled Israeli troops in Jabaliya and Jabaliya refugee camp.

"There are bombings and fierce battles during the night," said Assad Radwan, a Palestinian fisherman from Jabaliya. "Sounds of explosions and gunfire never stopped."

On Saturday, rescuers and hospital officials said that more than 90 Palestinians, including dozens from an extended family, were killed in Israeli airstrikes on two homes in Gaza.

Israel has come under heavy international criticism for the rising civilian death toll, widespread damage and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll, citing the militants' use of crowded residential areas and tunnels. Israel has launched thousands of airstrikes since Oct. 7, and has largely refrained from commenting on specific attacks.

Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas militants, including about 2,000 in the past three weeks since expanding its offensive to southern Gaza, but has not presented evidence. It says it is dismantling Hamas' vast underground tunnel network and killing off top Hamas commanders — an operation that leaders have said could take months.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

The mounting casualties on both sides came days after the United Nations Security Council passed a watered-down resolution calling for the speedy delivery of humanitarian aid for hungry and desperate Palestinians and the release of all the hostages, but not for a cease-fire.

Following the U.N. resolution, it was not immediately clear how and when aid deliveries would accelerate. Trucks enter through two crossings — Rafah on the border with Egypt and Kerem Shalom on the border with Israel. On Friday, fewer than 100 trucks entered, the U.N. said — far below the daily average of 500 before the war.

Both crossings were closed Saturday by mutual agreement among Israel, Egypt and the U.N., Israeli officials said.

Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, on Sunday reiterated calls by other top U.N. officials for a humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza to allow the delivery of aid, and help release hostages.

"For aid to reach people in need, hostages to be released, more displacement to be avoided and above all the devastating loss of lives to stop a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza is the only way forward," he wrote on X.

Israel's allies in Europe have also stepped up calls for a stop to the fighting. But the U.S., Israel's top ally, appeared to remain firmly behind Israel even though it has intensified its calls for greater protection for civilians in Gaza.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu on Saturday, a day after Washington shielded Israel from a harsher U.N. resolution. Biden said he did not ask for a cease-fire, while Netanyahu's office said the prime minister "made clear that Israel would continue the war until achieving all its goals."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press