A 41-year-old Israeli officer was killed and another was moderately wounded during an operation in the southern Gaza Strip, the military said early Monday.
At least seven Palestinians were said killed in Gaza after heavy fire was exchanged with Israeli forces, according to Palestinian sources, including a commander in Hamas' military wing. Hamas claimed that six of the casualties were part of its organization.
Palestinians also reported massive Israeli airstrikes in the area that began at the same time as the shooting.
In a statement, the military spokesperson said the the IDF chief of staff personally oversaw the operation together with the Military Intelligence chief.
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The army added that "an exchange of fire broke out" during a special forces operation in Gaza. The statement said that the officer was a lieutenant colonel, and that the purpose of the operation was not an assassination or a kidnapping.
The officer, whose name was not released for publication, was married with two children and a resident of Israel's north. His funeral will be held Monday at 3 PM.
The wounded officer was in moderate but stable condition, and was admitted to the intensive care unit at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva after undergoing an operation.
The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit said about the lieutenant colonel that "His actions will not be published in the media but he deserves our salute. His actions led to Israel having superiority over its enemies."
A statement by the Israeli army said that force was hurt during the first fire exchange and that the shooting occurred while "the special force carried out a lengthy operation and encountered a very complex reality."
The military spokesperson's office added that "What was revealed tonight is the very tip of operations that are carried out regularly and the purpose of which is to enable Israel's superiority as it exists today."
"I am stunned and I am grieving the loss of the IDF officer killed tonight," President Reuven Rivlin said. "I pray, together with all Israeli citizens, for the health of the wounded officer."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he mourns the fallen officer, "a lauded fighter." He said that "one day, the full tale of his heroism will be told. Israel's citizens owe him a huge debt."
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: "The Israeli people lost an industrious fighter tonight, whose contribution to the state will remain confidential for many years." Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that "We send our condolences to the family and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded. Thanks to heroes like these, we can all live here safely."
Seventeen projectiles were fired at Israel from Gaza since the escalation broke out, according to the IDF, with Iron Dome missiles 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.
The exchange began at about 9:30 P.M. Sunday. Palestinian sources in Gaza said an Israeli 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.
Late Sunday, responding to rumors and reports in Israel, the Israeli army took an unusual step and issued a statement denying that a soldier was abducted during the operation.
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.
The Homefront Command announced that schools would be closed on Monday. Residents of Gaza border communities received directions to remain near shelter overnight, but in these orders were canceled in the morning.
“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.”
Netanyahu cuts trip short
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.