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8 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza in deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months

Israeli army bulldozers are seen near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, on Thursday.  Israel's military said on Saturday that eight soldiers were killed in southern Gaza in the deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months.
Ohad Zwigenberg
Israeli army bulldozers are seen near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, on Thursday. Israel's military said on Saturday that eight soldiers were killed in southern Gaza in the deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months.

JERUSALEM — An explosion in southern Gaza killed eight Israeli soldiers, the military said Saturday, making it the deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months.

The attack, coming more than eight months into a grinding war that shows few signs of ending soon, was likely to fuel new calls for a cease-fire by Israeli protesters. It also came as the government confronts widespread anger over exemptions from military service for young ultra-Orthodox men.

Israel launched an air and ground invasion of Gaza in response to an Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas and other militants that killed some 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage. The Israeli offensive has killed over 37,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, who do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. It also has unleashed a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, where over 80% of the population has been displaced and Israeli restrictions and ongoing fighting have hindered efforts to bring in humanitarian aid, fueling widespread hunger.

Saturday’s explosion took place in Rafah, a southern city that Israel has identified as Hamas’ last major stronghold. It sent in ground troops to the city in early May and has given no indication when the operation will end.

“They knew they might have to sacrifice their lives, but they did it so we could live in this country. I salute them and hug their families,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

The military said the explosion happened just after 5 a.m. in the Tal al-Sultan area of Rafah. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, said it was caused either by an explosive placed by Hamas or by an anti-tank missile.

“We need to defeat the Rafah Brigade of Hamas and we are doing this with determination,” he said.

In January, 21 Israeli troops were killed in a single attack by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

President Joe Biden earlier this month unveiled a new cease-fire proposal that seeks the release of the roughly 120 hostages who remain in Gaza and an end to the fighting. While the international community has broadly embraced the plan, both Israel and Hamas have expressed misgivings. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will not halt the war until he achieves the twin goals of destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities.

“Today we paid another heartbreaking price in our just war for the defense of the homeland,” Netanyahu said Saturday. "With deep sorrow, in heavy mourning, I bow my head together with all the citizens of Israel and mourn the fall of our heroic warriors."

The inconclusive war has divided the Israeli public, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets each Saturday night to call on the government to reach a deal that would bring the hostages home. The Israeli government has already pronounced over 40 of the hostages held by Hamas to be dead, and officials fear that number could grow the longer they remain in captivity.

At a rally Saturday evening, participants watched a video message from Andrey Kozlov, who was rescued from Hamas captivity a week ago.

“More than 120 hostages are still there, and I can't feel all the happiness from this situation because I was rescued and they were not,” he said, according to The Hostages Families Forum Headquarters. “I ask to bring them home as soon as possible. Israel, world, Hamas, I ask you to make a deal as soon as possible.”

The deadly explosion also comes days after Netanyahu’s coalition voted in favor of extending the controversial exemptions from the military draft given to ultra-Orthodox men.

Although the vote was only procedural, it caused an uproar at a time when Israel continues to fight Hamas militants in Gaza and Hezbollah militants along the country’s northern border with Lebanon and the death toll continues to climb. Over 600 soldiers have been killed in fighting since Oct. 7, according to the military.

Last month, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered an end to government subsidies for ultra-Orthodox men who don’t serve in the army. But Netanyahu’s government, which includes politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, has found ways to keep money flowing to religious institutions.

The government is still under orders to pass a new draft law.

Most Jewish men and women are required to serve in the military from the age of 18. The exemptions granted to religious men have long been a source of contention among the broader public.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, was the only member of Netanyahu’s coalition to vote against this week’s legislation. Gallant, a member of the country’s War Cabinet, has insisted that all sectors of Israeli society contribute equally during its war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

If Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners leave the government, the country would be forced into new elections at a time when Netanyahu’s popularity is low and his re-election prospects are questionable.

Months of cease-fire negotiations have failed to find common ground between Israeli and Hamas. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Hamas proposed changes to a U.S.-backed plan, some of which he said were “workable” and some not.

Hamas has continually called for a permanent cease-fire and complete Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza as part of any deal that would see the hostages released. While the proposal announced by U.S. President Joe Biden includes these two provisions, Hamas has expressed concern about whether Israel will commit to them.

Meanwhile, violence has flared in the West Bank since the Israel-Hamas war erupted. On Saturday, a 16-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli forces near the northern city of Nablus, the Ramallah-based Health Ministry said. An Israeli security official confirmed Israeli forces opened fire at Palestinians who were throwing rocks at troops during a counterterrorism operation in the area. He spoke on condition of anonymity, pending a formal announcement by the army.

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press
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