Four Israeli soldiers killed Monday died after encountering Hamas militants emerging from an underground tunnel, wearing Israeli Defense Force (IDF) uniforms.
The IDF said the four soldiers died early Monday when the militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at their jeep, while they were en route to investigate the reported infiltration.
The Times of Israel reported the militants waited for the IDF to arrive, close to Kibbutz Nir Am, on the outskirts of the Israeli city of Sderot, while Hamas “opened diversionary fire across the border.”
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Another IDF unit arrived at the scene and killed 10 of the militants, while two others are thought to have escaped, according to The Times of Israel. Hamas confirmed the deaths, according to Ma’an News Agency.
“We paid a heavy price, but we averted a grave disaster,” the publication quoted IDF Gen. Sami Turgeman saying.
Two other Israeli soldiers were killed in a similar incident on Saturday.
Their loss of the four soldiers on Monday, along with three others in a separate incidents, brought the total number of IDF soldier fatalities since Israel launched its ground invasion on Thursday to 25—higher than the death toll in either the 2012 or 2008-2009 offensives against Hamas.
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The Israeli government asserts its ground offensive, which began on the 10th day of what it calls Operation Protective Edge, followed a thwarted attempt by militants to enter Israeli territory using tunnels and Hamas’ rejection of an Egyptian proposed truce, aims to destroy such passageways.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Sunday the mission to eliminate Hamas’ tunnels should only take a few more days, according to Haaretz.
But in earlier statements, Ya’alon said Operation Protective Edge would have no time limit.
“If needed we will recruit more reservists in order to continue the operation as long as necessary until the completion of the task and the return of the quiet in the whole of Israel especially from the threat of the Gaza Strip,” Yaalon told a parliamentary committee.
Meantime, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday the operation in the Gaza Strip will “continue and expand until the goal is achieved—the restoration of quiet to Israel’s citizens for a prolonged period.”
The IDF claims to have destroyed dozens of the clandestine passages since moving into the Gaza Strip four days ago, alleging militants also use the tunnels are for storage.
The Jerusalem Post reported the Israeli military has uncovered other IDF uniforms inside some tunnels, along with “ceramic vests, clothes, weapons and other items needed for combat.”
Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, accused the IDF of lying about what some of the tunnels are used for, insisting they were used for training purposes.
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Hamas also fired at least 60 rockets at Israel on Monday, including two at Tel Aviv, causing no injuries or damage. Since the start of the Israeli operation, Hamas has fired almost 2,000 rockets at Israel.
The IDF said it has killed more than 160 “terrorists” and hit more than 1,300 “terror sites” since the start of the ground offensive. Among the targets the IDF has shelled was the al-Aqsa hospital, where five people were killed on Monday.
More than 570 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have died in Israeli strikes since July 8, while more than 3,100 others have been injured.
With files from The Associated Press