Israel-Gaza Situation Report: Ground Offensive Could Shift South

Even as his troops are still searching for evidence that Hamas is using hospitals as military centers, Israel’s Chief of the General Staff says that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) will expand its operations elsewhere in Gaza.

“We are close to dismantling the military system that was present in the northern Gaza Strip,” Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said Friday in a message to his troops while touring the Palestinian enclave. “While there remains work to be completed, we are approaching it successfully. The IDF will continue in its operations within the Gaza Strip, and as far as we are concerned, more and more regions [will be targeted], systematically eliminating commanding officers and eliminating operatives, and eradicating the infrastructure. Your performance so far has been exemplary; draw upon the lessons learned in the past three weeks and do it even better.”

Halevi’s comments did not specify how the offensive might expand, but they came a day after parts of southern Gaza said they received evacuation notices. That raised concerns that Israel might seek to extend its ground offensive south. That concern was further raised Friday, when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Euronews that Hamas’ underground command center was based in Khan Yunis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip. The march into Gaza City, and into Al-Shifa Hospital in particular, was aimed at rooting out Hamas leadership, the IDF has maintained.

“We haven’t yet even come to the heart of this operation,” Olmert said. “Khan Younis, which is in the southern part of Gaza Strip, is the real headquarters of Hamas. They have the leadership, they are hiding, they have the bunkers, they have the command positions, they have the launching pads.”

We must note that Israel has dropped many bombs on Southern Gaza since the war began.

The announcement that the IDF will expand its operations in Gaza comes as tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza City continue to head that way.

Maxar Technologies on Friday released new satellite imagery showing the extent of the civilian exodus from northern Gaza. The image below shows a large crowd of people gathered along Salah al Deen Road in southern Gaza City attempting to flee south along the evacuation corridor. 

A large crowd of people is seen waiting to evacuate Gaza City. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies)

Israel on Friday repeated its assertion that Hamas is using hospitals in Gaza as command centers.

“We see the presence of Hamas in all the hospitals, it is a definite, clear presence,” said Commanding Officer of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman as he stood above what the IDF claimed is a tunnel shaft located in Al Shifa Hospital. “They are cynically using these hospitals as we can see here in the heart of Shifa.”

The War Zone could not independently verify this claim. The verification process even for the media on the ground is challenging at best because the IDF only allows journalists to accompany it if they agree to have their work approved before publication or broadcast.

As proof of its claims about Al-Shifa, the IDF has displayed what it says are assault rifles, suicide vests and even laptops containing recent information about hostages. Some of those claims have been challenged, however, with the BBC especially challenging some of the assertions which you can see in this video below.

The IDF made further claims that Hamas was using a school as an outpost and to hide weapons. The IDF said it killed Hamas fighters and confiscated the weapons.

Hamas has continued to deny using hospitals as military centers and said the IDF presence is adding to the health calamity.

“Alarming reports unveil a grim reality at the Al-Shifa Health Complex, now transformed into a military fortress bristling with occupation tanks and snipers,” Hamas said. “This militarization has resulted in an egregious denial of access to the hospital pharmacy, precipitating a humanitarian crisis with fatal consequences for numerous patients and injured people.”

More than 20 patients have died at Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital in the last two days as Israeli forces continue to raid the facility, Al Jazeera reported, citing a hospital official and the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza.

The health ministry said on Friday that 24 patients died over the past 48 hours due to power cuts at the hospital, which has been out of service since Saturday amid a fuel shortage. The War Zone cannot independently verify casualty claims by either side.

Israel is using camera-carrying robots and gel-like explosives in its battle against Hamas’s underground tunnel network known as the Gaza Metro. Given the challenges, however, there are suggestions it might have to use deadlier weapons.

“The tunnels are such a central military problem that Israel has a special army unit, called Yahalom, or Diamond in Hebrew, that has weapons and explosives designed for tunnels,” The Wall Street Journal reported

The unit is now embedded with infantry and armored forces in Gaza and has its own combat unit trained in underground fighting, according to Amir Avivi, a former deputy commander overseeing Gaza. He said the Israeli military in recent years has made sure regular combat units also have some coaching in underground warfare in mock training centers in Israel

One of the main methods Israeli forces are using to blow up tunnels is filling them with a gel-like explosive liquid, the Israeli military officer directing the tunnel fight told the Journal. The liquid is also pumped into the tunnels through hoses attached to container trucks. The problem is that it takes tons of the liquid to destroy several hundred meters of tunnel, he said, adding that the military is developing other methods to destroy them. You can read more about that gel, called “sponge bombs,” in our story here.

To better permanently destroy parts of the tunnel network, military analysts say Israel will likely need to use either bunker-buster munitions or thermobaric weapons, which hold a mixture that scatters and ignites, creating an explosion designed to go around barriers and flow inside structures. We recently wrote about a photo – published and then taken down by the Israeli Air Force – that indicated the possible placement on one of its AH-64D Apache attack helicopters of an AGM-114N variant of the Hellfire air-to-ground missile with a thermobaric warhead.

Humanitarian groups have warned of the danger of using thermobaric weapons in densely populated areas such as Gaza.

The IDF said it destroyed a Palestinian Islamic Jihad weapons production site and training ground in northern Gaza, used among other things to practice attacks on Israeli tanks. The facility, the IDF claimed, “was located adjacent to a courthouse in Gaza and a Turkish hospital.”

“IDF troops searched the post and removed two trucks full of weapons, including Badr-3 rocket parts (a surface-to-surface rocket), UAV parts, and intelligence materials belonging to the PIJ,” the IDF said on Telegram. “The post was used for weapon production intended to attack Israeli civilians and also contained a training tank, used by the terrorists for training to capture an IDF tank.”

During the operation, “an anti-tank missile was launched at the troops from an adjacent building. The troops directed a helicopter to strike the terrorist cell that launched the missile,” the IDF said. “Furthermore, a terrorist cell fired additional shots at the troops from an adjacent courthouse and was struck by an IDF tank.”

The War Zone could not independently verify these claims.

The 12-hour operation ended with the facility being destroyed, the IDF said.

The IDF said its warplanes “attacked many terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip.”

The IDF hit the Nuseirat Refugee Camp in Gaza.

A view of debris of destroyed buildings after Israeli army’s airstrike at Nuseirat Refugee Camp as Israel’s attacks continue on its 42nd day in Gaza Strip on November 17, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Israel also carried out an airstrike near Rafah in southern Gaza near the border with Egypt.

Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli strike on Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Hamas launched rockets at Tel Aviv for the first time in several days.

Fighting continues in the West Bank.

“The IDF, the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces are working against the terrorist organization Hamas throughout Judea and Samaria,” the IDF said. “Tonight, the three homes of the terrorists who carried out the attack at the tunnel checkpoint yesterday, in which the late Corporal Avraham Patna was killed, were mapped. The security forces arrested 21 wanted persons throughout the Central Command tonight, six of whom are associated with the terrorist organization Hamas.”

At least three people were killed and 15 wounded, four them critically, during the raid, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told NPR he has three goals for the Gaza operation -destroying Hamas, freeing the Israeli hostages it’s holding and giving Gaza a different future.

But the interview with Morning Edition‘s Steve Inskeep was notable for what the prime minister did not say: who he thinks should govern the territory with a population of 2.3 million, now devastated by six weeks of Israeli bombing.

Netanyahu said Israel must maintain “overall military responsibility” in Gaza “for the foreseeable future.”

“Once we defeat Hamas, we have to make sure that there’s no new Hamas, no resurgence of terrorism, and right now the only force that is able to secure that is Israel,” Netanyahu said.

He added “there has to be a civilian government there,” but declined to say who he thought it would be.

It’s unclear who would replace Hamas in the seat of government. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority — which runs the West Bank — has said he is not interested — and Israel doesn’t want that either.

“I think I know who it can’t be — it can’t be people committed to funding terrorism and inculcating terrorism,” Netanyahu added.

As part of ongoing hostage negotiations, Hamas is demanding that Israel stop flying surveillance drones over Gaza, CNN is reporting. It’s part of Hamas’ request that Israel pause its military operations in exchange for freeing hostages it’s holding, according to two Israeli officials and third source familiar with the ongoing negotiations.

While Israel could pause its military operations for as long as several days to allow for scores of hostages to be released, the sources suggested it is unlikely to accept the drone request since it would mean losing track of the movements of Hamas operatives, including any efforts to move the hostages within the Gaza strip, CNN reported.

A spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment on Friday.

The Israeli military has been flying drones in the skies over Gaza for hours on end every day during their military operation, using them as a primary means of surveillance to monitor the battlefield.

Gaza has long been one of the world’s most persistently surveilled locations, but that’s ticked up since the war broke out.

Families and friends of about 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza call for their return during a five-day “March for the Hostages” from Tel Aviv to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, near the town of Abu Ghosh, Israel, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

During a meeting with Palestinian Authority officials in the West Bank on Friday, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell tried to walk a tightrope in comments to the media. He said the EU was “a friend of the Palestinian people” and called the ongoing Israeli attacks in Gaza a tragedy. But he added that Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7 invasion was unjustified.

“When I’m saying a tragedy, I am making reference to what’s happening in Gaza, what has happened in Israel, and what is happening the situation in the West Bank,” Borrell said. ”In Gaza, they already have thousands of civilian victims. About half of them are children. There is a severe shortage of water, food, water, electricity, fuel, everything. Yesterday, I was briefed by the United Nations organizations working [in Gaza]. The situation is critical from the point of view of the working of hospitals with a collapse of the health systems, and a lack of medicines and medical supplies.”

On the other hand, Borrell condemned Hamas.

“The terrorist attack on the seventh of October changed the paradigm of an already fragile situation,” he said. “I said that Hamas has harmed the Palestinian people and Palestinian girls. Nothing can justify what Hamas did to the people they attacked with brutality and taking hostages, women children and elderly people and provoking such an intense Israeli response. Every civilian life is deplorable when it’s lost. We condemn Hamas for this terrorist attack in the strongest terms. We urge them to free to the hostages, and to give immediate access to them to the Red Cross, or Red Crescent.”

Hamas decried Borrell’s comments.

“We voice our strong condemnation and rejection of the statements made by European Union foreign policy official Josep Borrell,” Hamas said on Telegram. “We also hold him responsible for his justification of the crimes of the Israeli occupation, which massacres children and women, violates the sanctity of hospitals, schools, and places of worship, and kills the sick and displaced civilians in cold blood.”

Borrell “surpassed the limits of decency and diplomacy, when he tried to distort the right of the Palestinian people to resist the occupation, which is a right guaranteed by international law. We see that the US and the EU are violating international law by giving the occupation the green light to commit more crimes and massacres against our people.”

The fighting along the northern border with Lebanon remains fierce but somewhat contained.

The Hezbollah-aligned Al Mayadeen news outlet said on Telegram that the Israeli “Ruwaisat Al-Alam” site and a tank in the vicinity of the “91st Division” headquarters in the Israeli “Branit” barracks were attacked.

The IDF said in response, fighters and helicopters “struck terror targets in Lebanon. The terror targets included terrorist infrastructure, sites, operational command centers, and military posts in which Hezbollah terrorists operated.”

Earlier in the day, the IDF said it “identified fire from Lebanon launched toward an IDF post in the Har Dov area, that fell in an open area. No injuries were reported.” 

There were three more attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria Friday that resulted in one minor injury, a U.S. defense official told The War Zone. There were two attacks in Iraq and one in Syria, which you can read about below:

• Multiple one-way drone attacks were launched against US and Coalition forces at Tall Baydar, Syria, which resulted in a US service member receiving minor injuries. The service member has returned to duty. The attack also resulted in damage to infrastructure.

• Multiple one-way drone attacks were launched against U.S. and Coalition forces at Al-Asad Airbase, Iraq. No casualties and no damage to infrastructure.

• A one-way drone attack was launched against U.S. and Coalition forces at Bashur Airbase, Iraq. No casualties and no damage to infrastructure.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a loose-knit group of Iranian-backed militias, claimed credit for those attacks.

The U.S. defense official said since Oct. 17, U.S. and Coalition Forces have been attacked at least 61 times to date, with 29 separate times in Iraq and 32 separate times in Syria by a mix of one-way attack drones and rockets. Those attacks have resulted in 61 minor injuries, the official said.

Longer-range rockets discovered by IDF forces in Northern Gaza have raised eyebrows. The rockets that appear similar to Badr-3s and Boraq-70s of Iranian origin have far greater range than what has largely been fired out of Gaza. But some eagle-eyed open-source analysts believe the IDF actually found parade mockups, not real weapons.

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Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard's work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.