At least seven Palestinians were said killed in the southern Gaza Strip on Sunday after heavy fire was exchanged along the Israel-Gaza border, according to Palestinian sources, including a commander in Hamas' military wing. Hamas claimed that four of the casualties were part of its organization.
The Israeli military later confirmed that one IDF officer was killed and another was moderately wounded during an operation.
The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit said the shooting occurred “during security activity by the IDF in the Gaza area.” The Palestinians also reported massive Israeli airstrikes in the area that began at the same time as the shooting.
Seventeen projectiles have been fired at Israel from Gaza since the escalation broke out, according to the IDF, with the Iron Dome missile defense system intercepting three of the projectiles.
The incident occurred at the height of efforts to achieve a long-term cease-fire in Gaza and is liable to make these efforts much harder.
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The shooting began at about 9:30 P.M. Palestinian sources in Gaza said an IDF force was operating inside the Gaza Strip, east of Khan Yunis. Palestinian officials said the group of Hamas men were fired at from a passing car.
Palestinian sources told Haaretz that one of the casualties is Nour Baraka, a deputy commander of an elite unit of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas.
According to a statement from Hamas' military wing, Israeli forces entered Gaza in a civilian vehicle three kilometers east of Khan Yunis. The exchange of fire began after Israeli soldiers kiled Barake.
Gazan officials identified the other casualties as 21-year-old Omar Jani Abu Hatar, Mohammad Majed Al-Qara, Ala Adin Koidar, Mustafa Hassan Abu Odeh, Mahmoud Atallah Masabach and Ala Fasifis.
After rumors began flying in through Israel, the unit took the unusual step of issuing another statement saying that “No member of our forces was abducted during the security incident” and that “additional details will follow.” Security forces in Gaza announced a state of high alert, and the Islamic Jihad declared their forces' readiness.
Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum condemned the "cowardly Israeli aggresion" in his statement on the incident, adding that the Palestinian resistance is ready to carry out its duty and make the enemy pay a high price.
Residents of Israeli communities near Gaza said the scope of these airstrikes was exceptional and “sounded almost like a war.” The Homefront Command announced that schools would be closed on Monday. Residents of Gaza border communities received directions to remain near shelter.
“There were explosions and now it’s a little quieter,” said Roni Keisan, a resident of Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz near the Gaza border. “We can see a massive tank operations in the area. We set up the bomb shelter and are ready for a long sleepless night inside. In the meantime, the only information we’ve received is to stay within reach of sheltered areas.”
The secretary of Kibbutz Be’eri, Hagi Yaniv, told Haaretz that residents had seen “planes and helicopters circling above the kibbutz” and had heard “explosions both near and far.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is visiting in Paris, cut his trip short and is flying back to Israel overnight after receiving live updates and holding consultations on the topic. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is holding consultations at the military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu said at a briefing for reporters that he would rather explore the possibility of a long-term cease-fire with Hamas than go to war. He defended the decision to let suitcases stuffed with $15 million in cash from Qatar enter Gaza last week.
“We want to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” he said. “At the moment, what’s undermining stability is internal volatility within Gaza, which it may be in our power to prevent.”
Prior to the incident, Israeli officials had sounded relatively optimistic about the chances of achieving a long-term cease-fire. But the heavy exchanges of fire and the casualties suffered by Hamas are liable to complicate the situation, thereby forcing Egyptian intelligence officials to step up their pressure on both sides in order to restore quiet.
The commander of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, met earlier on Sunday with representatives of Israeli communities near Gaza to discuss an incident on Friday in which a Palestinian penetrated Netiv Ha’asara, a moshav just north of Gaza, and torched a greenhouse. Toledano said the incident disturbed him greatly and the IDF would investigate how it happened.
Qatar reportedly finished paying the July salaries of Hamas officials on Saturday. Thousands of officials who have not received their salaries claim that they are part of Hamas' military wing. According to the deal, Qatari money will be transferred to civilian officials only.