Israel says 24 soldiers killed in deadliest day for military since Gaza war began

Army says deaths occurred when RPG fired at tank detonated explosives set to demolish buildings

Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. Israel has waged war in the enclave for the past three months. Reuters
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The Israeli military said 21 soldiers were killed in an attack in central Gaza on Monday, its biggest single loss since the war began in October, on a day when three other Israeli soldiers also died in the enclave.

Army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the reservists were killed when a militant fired a rocket-propelled grenade towards Israeli soldiers who were rigging two buildings in central Gaza with explosives, to demolish them.

The resulting explosion caused the buildings to collapse on top of the soldiers.

Three soldiers were killed separately in combat, as Israeli forces intensified an assault on the southern city of Khan Younis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday was “one of the most difficult days” since war began.

“I mourn for our fallen heroic soldiers,” he said. “We must learn the necessary lessons and do everything to preserve the lives of our warriors. In the name of our heroes, for our lives, we will not stop fighting until absolute victory.”

The soldiers killed in central Gaza "were removing structures" by laying explosives in two buildings in an area about 600 metres from the border with Israel near Kissufim, said Admiral Hagari.

The incident took place at about 4pm local time, he said, when a militant fired the RPG at a nearby Israeli tank.

“The buildings collapsed as a result of this explosion, while most of the soldiers were inside and around the buildings,” he added. “The buildings likely exploded from ordnance that our forces set up there.”

The army released the names of 10 of those killed and said the names of the others would be released later on Tuesday.

Rescue efforts continued late into the night and involved civilian units from Israel's special rescue fire service, Israel's Kan public broadcaster reported.

The army said most of the soldiers were reservists from its training school and were involved in mine clearance and “securing” Gaza's border with southern Israel.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog and government ministers issued statements mourning their deaths, while some cabinet members called for the war to continue.

“An unbearably difficult morning, in which more and more names of the best of our sons are added to the hero's tombstone, in a war that has no justice,” Mr Herzog wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

“The intense battles are taking place in an extremely challenging space and we are strengthening the soldiers … and the security forces who are working with endless determination to realise the goals of the fighting.”

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the operations being carried out by the soldiers were vital to Israel's objectives in the besieged enclave, where more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed in the past three months.

“This is a hard and painful morning. Our hearts are with our precious families during their hardest hour,” he wrote on X. This war will determine the fate of Israel in the next decades.”

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has called for Israel to reoccupy Gaza, said: “It is clearer than ever – the war must not be stopped, the fighting must not be reduced.”

He called on Israel to “mow down” Hamas “with all our might”.

Israel called up about 360,000 reservists following the deadly attack by Hamas on October 7 that killed 1,200 in southern Israel. Tens of thousands of soldiers have been sent to fight in the enclave since.

Anti-war protests were held in Tel Aviv and Haifa at the weekend as calls grow for the fighting to end. Police dispersed protests outside Mr Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, where relatives of the 130 hostages in Gaza appealed for more to be done to free them.

Israeli pollster Dahlia Scheindlin said the incident will not change overwhelming public support for the war in Israel.

“Yes, there are questions about the war aims: whether they’re clear enough and costing too much for Israeli society and in the international sphere,” said Ms Scheindlin, who works for think tanks including the Century Foundation.

“But, overwhelmingly, the public supports the continuation of the war, with the exception of a few recent demonstrations calling for the release of hostages, and that in itself is ambiguous because only a section of the demonstrators are actually calling for a ceasefire,” she told The National.

“What we’ve found is that even the most extreme situations – particularly the three hostages killed by the IDF [in December] – do not seem to put the brakes on public support for the war.

“These kind of events feel like the price Israelis have to pay, and many agree with the government’s line that if the war stops now, these soldiers will have died in vain,” she said.

Hospitals under siege in Gaza

Meanwhile, the US called for Israel to protect innocent people in hospitals after Israeli forces laid siege on Monday to three healthcare compounds in Gaza's southern city of Khan Younis.

Washington expects Israel to defend itself “in accordance with international law and to protect innocent people in hospitals, medical staff and patients as well, as much as possible”, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

What remained of Gaza's crumbling health sector came under intense attack on Monday as thousands of people were trapped in two Khan Younis hospitals, while Israeli forces entered a third and detained medical staff.

Mass graves were dug at Nasser Hospital as civilians sheltering inside reported Israeli tanks moving closer to one of the last operating hospitals in Gaza.

At Al Amal Hospital, run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society, up to 8,000 people were “unable to move” for fear of being shot, a spokeswoman for the charity group told The National. Ambulance workers were also trapped inside and unable to rescue the injured lying on the streets.

Gaza's Health Ministry said that Israeli forces had also raided Al Khair Hospital and detained medical staff.

At least 62,000 people have been injured since the war began, the Health Ministry said.

Residents of Khan Younis said the Israeli attacks on Monday were the most intense since the war began.

Updated: January 23, 2024, 3:21 PM