Five Israeli Soldiers Killed in 24 Hours, as IDF Closes in on Gaza Cities

Six soldiers killed since IDF began ground op; one killed in battle Tuesday, four killed Monday night.

Israel Defense Forces troops edged closer to Gaza's main cities on Tuesday, as a sixth IDF soldier was killed in the ground offensive against the coastal strip's Hamas rulers.

The soldier was killed and four others wounded on Tuesday morning when militants opened fire on them during a patrol operation in Gaza City. The soldiers returned fire and identified hitting their targets.

Four other soldiers were killed in two separate incidents on Monday while battling Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, The soldiers apparently died when errant IDF tank shells hit areas in which they were operating.

The army's death toll to six since it launched the ground operation Saturday. Staff Sergeant Dvir Emanueloff was the first soldier to be killed, during a gunbattle with Gaza militants on the eve of the ground offensive.

On Tuesday, tanks rumbled closer to the towns of Khan Younis and Dir el Balah in south and central Gaza but were still several kilometers outside, witnesses said, adding that the sounds of fighting could be heard from around the new IDF positions.

Israel already has encircled Gaza City, the area's biggest city.

News of the death of the fourth Israel Defense Forces soldier, Paratroopers Brigade officer Capt. Jonathan Netanel, 27, of Kedumim, emerged late Tuesday morning. According to an initial probe, he was killed by friendly fire in the northern Gaza Strip, near Beit Hanun.

IDF has launched a probe into the incident.

The soldiers who died in a separate friendly fire incident Monday were from the Golani infantry brigade. 20 other troops were also wounded by the tank shell, three seriously and one critically.

The Golani soldiers killed were identified as Cpl. Yosef Muadi, 19, from Haifa, Maj. Dagan Vertman, a 32-year-old doctor from Ma'aleh Michmash, and Staff Sergeant Nitai Stern, 21, from Jerusalem.

The funerals of all three were held Tuesday. Muadi was buried in the Galilee village of Yarka, a Druze community, at 3 P.M. Vertman was buried in the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem at 3:30 P.M. Staff Sergeant Nitai Stern, 21, from Jerusalem was buried in the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery at 1:30 P.M.

The three belonged to Golani's Battalion 13. Golani battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Oren Cohen was among the seriously wounded.

The incident was the most severe so far for IDF troops in 10 days of Operation Cast Lead.

IDF brigade commander Colonel Avi Peled was lightly hurt by the tank shell, but refused to be evacuated for treatment. Instead, Peled directed the evacuation of all the wounded troops and called in artillery fire and IAF air strikes on enemy targets before evacuating himself from the scene.

The number of Palestinian dead Monday was estimated at about 100, although no official figure has been given.

The IDF tightened its hold Monday over the outskirts of the built-up area of Gaza City as it traded fire with Hamas militants.

The major firefight started at around 6:30 P.M. Monday in the Sajaiyeh neighborhood in east Gaza City. According to preliminary information gathered by the IDF, Hamas attacked with mortar shells that exploded near the troops.

Troops then apparently took shelter behind the wall of a building, after which a large explosion took place.

Hamas responded with additional mortar fire. In one of the strikes, near the border, two Israelis were wounded, one of them moderately.

Sajaiyeh, together with its adjacent neighborhoods, has been considered a Hamas stronghold for several years.

Sources in the IDF said the advance of the forces into the Strip forced the rocket-launching teams to retreat somewhat, with Sajaiyeh identified as main launch location. Practically no launches were seen from areas in which the IDF had taken control.

Gaza militants fire 40 rockets into Israel on Monday

Still, over 40 Qassam and Grad rockets were fired Monday from Gaza at southern Israel striking Ashkelon, Ashdod, Sderot, Kiryat Malakhi, near Ofakim, Netivot and Be'er Sheva.

Hamas also fired rockets at the area between Ashdod and Gedera. A number of people in Sderot were treated for shock, and in Ashdod a rocket nearly destroyed a kindergarten.

Inside Gaza, eight soldiers were slightly injured in other incidents in the Strip on Monday.

Over the past two days there have been at least two cases in which soldiers have been injured in 'friendly fire,' one by machine gun fire and one during the detonation of an explosive device.

Monday was the third day of the ground phase of Cast Lead. Sources in the General Staff said the day was spent 'expanding and deepening' control by forces on the ground. The IDF is now surrounding Gaza on the three land sides and maintaining a sea blockade. The Gaza Strip has also been sliced in two in the area where the Israeli settlement of Netzarim once stood.

IDF troops are going out on ambushes and attacks known as 'response-stimulating' operations.

The General Staff estimated 100 Palestinians were killed Monday in five battles at various locations around the Strip. However, it appears that a large number of the dead were civilians.

The IDF arrested at least 80 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip Monday.

The infantry forces advanced yesterday under cover of heavy artillery and helicopter fire.

The Israel Air Force continued Monday to bomb tunnels on the border at Rafah, to prevent their renewed use by Hamas as supply tunnels along the Philadelphi Route.

A few of the approximately 80 Palestinians arrested by afternoon on Monday admitted in their initial interrogation to membership in Hamas. They were transferred to temporary detention facilities inside Israel.

According to reports from the Strip, extended firefights took place Monday in the Zeitun area as well as the northern strip, not far from the former Palestinian Authority liaison offices. The IDF bombarded the area heavily.

Over the past 24 hours, two Palestinian families were killed. In the Shati refugee camp the parents and five children of the Abu Aisha family were killed. In the Zeitun neighborhood, the seven members of the Salmuni family were killed. In another incident, a pregnant Palestinian woman and her four children were killed.