Israel expands offensive into southern Gaza

The IDF Commander of the Southern Command, Major General Yaron Finkelman, in the Gaza Strip on December 4. (Screenshot of IDF video)  

Israel expanded operations into the southern Gaza Strip in the days after a pause in fighting ended on December 1. On Monday, December 4, residents in Gaza reported seeing Israeli tanks heading south along Salah al-Din Street, the major road that stretches north through central Gaza and links Khan Yunis with Gaza City. IDF airstrikes also hit buildings in the Hamad city complex in Khan Yunis on December 2. The offensive into southern Gaza took place as the IDF continued to surround what remained of Hamas fighters in Gaza City. 

The first operations in the south consisted of a naval raid at Khan Yunis marina and in Deir Al-Balah. The IDF said they struck “infrastructure and equipment used by the Hamas Naval Forces.” Those opening moves followed the attack on 400 targets in Gaza overnight from December 1st to the 2nd, of which 50 targets were struck in southern Gaza.  

Israel Chief of Staff Herzi HaLevi visited the IDF’s 162nd division operating in northern Gaza on Sunday and Monday, December 4. During his visit on Sunday, he said the IDF had “dismantled” two Hamas brigades in northern Gaza. “Yesterday, and today, we eliminated brigade commanders, company commanders, many operatives, and yesterday morning we started the same process in the southern Gaza Strip, it will be with no less strength than that, it will be with no less results than that, and Hamas commanders will meet the IDF everywhere in a very, very strong way,” he said. 

The IDF is seeking to squeeze Hamas in northern Gaza, taking the neighborhoods of Jabalya and Shujaiya, which border the central area of Gaza City. For instance, on Saturday, the IDF eliminated Wessam Farhat, the head of Hamas’ Shujaiya battalion. The IDF said that he had a long career in terrorism, including sending Hamas terrorists to attack Kibbutz Nahal Oz and the Nahal Oz IDF outpost on October 7. These were two of around 29 locations targeted by the Hamas attack on October 7, in which 1,200 Israelis were killed.  

To the north of Shujaiya, the IDF also targeted Jabalya. The IDF said that soldiers located tunnel shafts and found “one tunnel shaft, located in the courtyard of a school complex, had a depth of dozens of meters. Another operational tunnel shaft was located in the home of an operative from Hamas’ naval force.” 

In addition to focusing on the Hamas battalions in Jabalya and Shujaiya, the IDF also used an airstrike to eliminate the commander of the Hamas Shati battalion, Haitham Khuwajari. He was also responsible for attacks on October 7, the IDF said. “Khuwajari also secured Hamas terrorist activity in the Shifa Hospital and was in command of Hamas’ forces fighting against IDF soldiers in the Shati area. He was also responsible for carrying out numerous acts of terror against Israelis,” the IDF said. In the first period of fighting, roughly fifty days before the pause began on November 24, Israel had fought against ten Hamas battalions in northern Gaza, according to IDF estimates. Many of the commanders of these units were already eliminated. Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, after flying over part of Gaza on December 1 in an attack helicopter, referenced the defeat of Hamas battalions in “Beit Lahia, Beit Hanun, Al Farkun [and] Zeitun,” warning Hamas members in Khan Yunis that they would be next. 

The IDF said on December 3 that since the war began almost two months ago, it has carried out 10,000 airstrikes. In addition, it carried out an additional 200 by Monday morning. These strikes come as Israel continues to move more units into Gaza. The Kfir brigade, which often operates in the West Bank, was sent to Gaza for the first time, the IDF said on December 4. This occurred in the context of the IDF continuing to have several hundred thousand reservists called up since October 7. Although some have returned home, the IDF doesn’t give any specific numbers. Many remain in their units in Gaza on the northern border or in the West Bank.  

On the international front, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the pause in fighting ended, and Mossad head David Barnea has been in Qatar to hold discussions. 84 women and children and 24 foreign nationals, primarily Thai citizens, were released in the first pause in fighting. However, “following the impasse in negotiations and the directive given by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Director of the Mossad David Barnea has instructed his team in Doha to return to Israel,” the Israel Prime Minister’s Office said on December 2. Israel’s National Security Council also released new travel warnings for Israelis traveling abroad, encouraging citizens to postpone “travel to countries for which travel warnings have been issued, and particularly Arab and Middle Eastern countries, the North Caucasus, countries bordering Iran and several Muslim countries in Asia.” This came in the wake of Israel’s President Isaac Herzog attending the COP28 climate conference in the UAE, the first significant trip by an Israeli leader since the war began. 

Israel’s Defense Minister Gallant said on December 2 that Israel’s goal remains the same in Gaza; “defeating Hamas, destroying its governing and military capabilities – not allowing Hamas to continue its rule over Gaza, and returning the hostages to their homes.” In the last several days, Israel has declared that six of the hostages in Gaza were killed. There are still 137 hostages held in Gaza, including eight Thai citizens. IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on December 3 that Israel is focused on mitigating harm to civilians in southern Gaza. The UN estimates around 2 million people in Gaza have been displaced by the fighting, and most of them are now in southern Gaza. The IDF published a special map on December 2 dividing Gaza into zones so that civilians can flee to areas of safety as operations expand in the south. The IDF says 401 soldiers have been killed in action since October 7, seventy-five of them have fallen since the ground operation in Gaza began. Most of the others were killed during the initial Hamas attack on October 7. 

Israel faced threats from Hezbollah after the pause in fighting ended. There have been at least nineteen incidents of rocket launches, mortar fire, and drone threats since December 1, with Israelis injured in several attacks. According to IDF lists of incidents, at least fifteen Israeli communities in the north have been targeted since December 1, and there were two attacks from Syria. In each case, the IDF responded with either artillery or airstrikes. In the Red Sea, three commercial ships were targeted by the Iran-backed Houthis on December 3. This was the most significant number of attacks in a single day by the Houthis, who have carried out numerous attacks in the Red Sea since October 7. In addition, there have now been 76 attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since October 7.   

Reporting from Israel, Seth J. Frantzman is an adjunct fellow at FDD and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal. He is the acting news editor and senior Middle East correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post. 

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