Israeli military forces suffered their single largest known loss of troops on Monday when 21 reserve soldiers died as they tried to rig two buildings in southern Gaza with mines to perform a controlled demolition. According to the Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson, Hamas commandos fired a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, at an Israeli tank that was deployed to protect the soldiers rigging the buildings with bombs, causing a chain reaction that led to the structures collapsing on top of the Israeli soldiers.
“At around 4 p.m., an RPG was fired by gunmen at a tank securing the forces, and simultaneously, an explosion occurred in two two-story buildings. The buildings collapsed due to this explosion, while most of the forces were inside and near them,” said Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson. “One of the missiles apparently hit a mine, which exploded and caused the buildings to collapse with the soldiers inside them.”
The Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, released a statement Tuesday describing an attack that was consistent with the time and nature of the Israeli military’s description. While the IDF statement was unclear about the exact cause of the explosion inside the buildings, the Qassam Brigades said its operatives “targeted” the structure, leading to the “explosion of the [IDF’s] ammunition and engineering equipment,” “completely blowing [it] up.”
Such controlled demolitions have become an increasingly common tactic used by Israeli forces in Gaza. The Israeli military has justified its destruction of civilian housing and other infrastructure by claiming it houses Hamas facilities or leaders or to gain access to subterranean tunnels. In Monday’s incident, however, Hagari said the buildings were marked for demolition because they were situated in an area of Gaza that Israel unilaterally declared a “buffer zone” between Gaza and Israel. He said the purpose was to protect an Israeli kibbutz located a half mile from Gaza against possible future attacks.
This appears to be the first time the Israeli military has publicly admitted that its systematic destruction of whole areas of eastern Gaza are not entirely aimed at destroying tunnels or other Hamas infrastructure, but at depopulating more areas of Gaza in the name of security for nearby Israeli settlements. “The IDF systematically demolishes Palestinian buildings that enable surveillance and firing capabilities toward Israel, leading to the destruction of hundreds of buildings to date,” the IDF said in a statement.
Controlled demolitions against the property within an occupied territory are generally prohibited under international humanitarian law unless they are “imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.”
But IDF soldiers have posted multiple videos on TikTok and other social media sites of themselves gleefully hitting the trigger button sparking massive controlled explosions in Palestinian neighborhoods, as well as educational, cultural, and government institutions. In a TikTok video showing a military bulldozer knocking down houses in Khan Younis, an Israeli soldier jokes that he and his colleagues are setting up a real estate company. “This field is definitely worth investing in,” he says. “For those who have money, this is the time to invest. Make an offer.”
On January 17, Israeli forces blew up Al-Isra University, reportedly rigging it with more than 300 mines before conducting a triggering strike that leveled the entire campus. “The explosion occurred 70 days after the Israeli military transformed the school into barracks and, later, into a temporary detention facility,” according to the humanitarian organization Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters he had seen the video of the demolition of the privately owned school, but refused to comment on the legality or justification for the operation.
“It looks like a controlled demolition,” said Associated Press correspondent Matt Lee during the briefing. “It looks like what we do here in this country, when we’re taking down an old hotel or a stadium. And you have nothing to say? You have nothing to say about this?”
Miller responded that the Biden administration had made inquiries with the Israeli government about the bombing, “But I’m not able to characterize the actual facts on the ground before hearing that response.” Echoing Israeli inferences that Hamas used the university for military purposes or had an underground facility, Miller added, “I don’t know what was under that building. I don’t know what was inside, inside that building.”
Monday’s mass casualty incident among the ranks of the IDF comes as Israel has become increasingly mired in a morass in its military battle against Hamas and other Palestinian guerrillas. Israel has, to date, confirmed the deaths of 219 soldiers in Gaza ground operations. Significantly, major U.S. and Israeli media outlets have begun to raise questions about the prospects of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decisively achieving any of the stated goals of the war. “Israel’s limited progress in dismantling Hamas has raised doubts within the military’s high command about the near-term feasibility of achieving the country’s principal wartime objectives,” reported the New York Times on January 20. Haaretz’s defense correspondent Amos Harel penned a January 19 column warning of “clear signs that Israel is getting bogged down in the Gaza quagmire” and saying Netanyahu’s government is increasingly “delusional.”
Netanyahu responded to the deaths of the 21 soldiers killed in the attempted demolition operation, and an additional three IDF soldiers killed Monday, with a pugilistic declaration. “While we bow our heads in memory of our fallen, we are not relenting — even for a moment — in striving for the goal that has no alternative — achieving total victory,” he said. “We are in the midst of a war, the justification of which is without parallel.” Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant echoed those sentiments, saying, “This is a war that will determine the future of Israel for decades to come. The loss of these soldiers is an imperative for achieving the goals of this war.”
While Israel is struggling in its stated aims of eliminating Hamas and freeing the Israeli hostages, the IDF continues to prove murderously adept at killing large numbers of Palestinian civilians. Its ground operations in Khan Younis has seen IDF forces attack numerous shelters, including those run by the U.N., where the Israeli government had instructed Palestinians to flee to remain safe. It has also laid siege to more hospitals and medical facilities. A mass grave has now been dug on the grounds of Nasser Hospital to bury Palestinians killed in the intense Israeli attacks on Khan Younis.
This week, the conservative death figures published by the Gaza health ministry reported that the number of fatalities in the enclave had surpassed 25,000 Palestinians, with another 63,000 wounded. These numbers only include cases where deaths have been officially recorded by Gaza’s hospital and mortuary system. They do not include the thousands of Palestinians unaccounted for and trapped under rubble caused by Israeli bombardment and fighting.
Israeli media outlets are focused on the loss of lives of their nation’s soldiers in Monday’s incident, displaying photographs of the dead and describing the efforts to retrieve any possible survivors. “Rescue forces described the scene as reminiscent of the aftermath of an earthquake,” reported The Times of Israel. “For several hours, a large number of troops from the IDF’s search and rescue units, as well as members of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, worked to extract the casualties from the collapsed buildings.”
The estimated 7,000 Palestinians trapped under the rubble of their former homes and other structures receive no such media coverage. They are simply nameless statistics often omitted from the descriptions of the carnage in Gaza, a mass destruction enabled primarily by U.S.-supplied and manufactured bombs. The vast majority of these victims have no official search-and-rescue operation and no fire department to respond to their desperate, muffled pleas for help. Often their only hope is that their neighbors might somehow claw their way through the heavy concrete wreckage using whatever tools they can find. Or they are left, trapped, spending their last moments desperately scraping their own hands raw and bloody in an effort to dig their way out.
Correction: January 23, 2024, 1:45 p.m. ET
Al-Isra University in Gaza was blown up on January 17, not January 18, as previously reported. The piece was also updated to include more details from Hamas’s statement on the incident.