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Eight Israeli soldiers killed as fighting continues in Rafah

EIGHT Israeli soldiers were killed in the southern Gaza Strip, the military said, as forces continued to push in and around the southern city of Rafah and strikes hit several areas of Gaza, killing at least 19 Palestinians.

The soldiers, all members of a combat engineering unit, were in an armoured carrier that was hit by an explosion that detonated engineering materials being carried on the vehicle, apparently in contravention of standard practice, the military said. It said the early morning incident, in the Tel al-Sultan area in the west of Rafah, was being investigated.

The armed wing of the Palestinian militant group Hamas said the vehicle had been trapped in a prepared minefield that set off the explosion.

Israeli tanks advanced in Tel al-Sultan and shells landed in the coastal area, where thousands of Palestinians, many of them displaced several times already, have sought refuge.

Despite growing international pressure for a ceasefire, an agreement to halt the fighting still appears distant, more than eight months since the start of the war in October, with the near-daily cross-border exchanges of fire with Hezbollah militia fighters in southern Lebanon intensifying.

In Israeli airstrikes on two houses in Gaza City suburbs, residents said at least 15 people were killed. Four others were killed in separate attacks in the south, medics said.

The Israeli military on Saturday said its forces in Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, close to the border with Egypt, had captured large quantities of weapons, both above ground and concealed in the extensive tunnel network built by Hamas.

READ:  Israeli tanks pound hospital districts in south Gaza, displaced set to flee anew

It said militants had on Friday fired five rockets from the humanitarian area in central Gaza, two of which fell in open areas in Israel and three fell short in Gaza.

“This is a further example of the cynical exploitation of humanitarian infrastructure and the civilian population as human shields by terror organizations in the Gaza Strip for their terrorist attacks,” the military said.

PROTESTS

The deaths of the eight soldiers, pushing the total number of Israeli troops killed in Gaza past 300, may complicate the political situation facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a week after centrist former general Benny Gantz quit the government, accusing Netanyahu of having no proper strategy for Gaza.

Protests by families of hostages still held by Hamas, demanding an agreement to bring them home, have become weekly events, underscoring the divisions in Israeli society which have reopened following a period of unity at the start of the war.

The Islamic Jihad armed wing, Al-Quds Brigades, said on Saturday Israel could only regain its hostages in Gaza if it ended the war and pulled out forces from the enclave.

Islamic Jihad is a smaller ally of Hamas, which led a rampage in southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies. More than 100 hostages are believed to remain captive in Gaza, although at least 40 have been declared dead in absentia by Israeli authorities.

READ:  Truce calls mount as Israel-Palestinian conflict rages on

Since a week-long truce in November, repeated attempts to arrange a ceasefire have failed, with Hamas insisting on a permanent end to the war and full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Netanyahu refuses to end the war before Hamas is eradicated.

At least 37,296 Palestinians, at least 30 of them in the past 24 hours, have been killed in Israel’s military campaign to eliminate Hamas, according to the Gaza health ministry.

By JAMES MACKENZIE and NIDAL AL-MUGHRABI

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