Update(1515ET): Hamas has claimed to have repelled a brief Israeli ground incursion, in what marks the first such reported direct ground fight between two sides in Gaza. The Al-Qassam Brigades announced its fighters destroyed two Israeli military bulldozers and a tank as part of an ambush amid the IDF's conducting 'limited' incursions into the strip.
"The soldiers of the Zionist force that fell into the Khan Younis ambush left their vehicles and fled east of the fence on foot," the Hamas wing said on social media. The IDF as expected did not confirm the claims, saying only that "shots were fired at IDF soldiers operating west of the Gaza Strip security fence, in the area of Kissufim." Instead, the IDF said only that "An IDF tank struck the terrorist cell who fired at the soldiers" - but did confirm its forces were operating inside Gaza at the time of the incident.
The IDF appears to have begun taking casualties, and the major ground offensive has yet to even begin. Importantly, an IDF statement cited in a fresh Times of Israel update appears to back Hamas' account of repelling the IDF tank and bulldozers:
A soldier was killed and three others were hurt on Sunday after Hamas attacked troops carrying out an operation on the western side of the Gaza border fence, near the southern community of Kissufim.
The operation was part of the military’s searches for bodies of missing Israelis, and to clear the area for Israel’s upcoming ground offensive.
The Israel Defense Forces said an anti-tank guided missile was fired at an Israeli tank and engineering vehicle, and troops responded by shelling the terror cell. Terror group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Elsewhere the IDF announced it conducted a very rare airstrike in the West Bank. It said its jets hit a mosque allegedly used as a "Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist compound" in Jenin.
Meanwhile, Israel has issued a formal apology to Egypt for inadvertently hitting an Egyptian border outpost, which injured a number of Egyptian military border guards. Al Jazeera describes:
Shell fragments from an Israeli tank have hit the Egyptian border, injuring at least seven people including several Egyptian border guards, according to the militaries of both countries.
The incident occurred late Sunday, with the Israeli military confirming that it “accidentally” hit the Egyptian position near the border with the Gaza Strip.
Israeli forces have struck the Rafah crossing area multiple times at this point, with Palestinian officials alleging that it is an intention al act.
🚨JUST IN - Gaza Ministry of Health spokesman:— Mario Nawfal (@MarioNawfal) October 22, 2023
- If the IDF carries out its threat to bomb Al-Quds Hospital, a major massacre will occur.
- The international community should not be silent in the face of Israel's threats to bomb our hospitals.
- The remaining amount of fuel… pic.twitter.com/3t6CHSNR80
In Washington, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the US is "concerned about potential escalation" in the Middle East, and confirmed that US assets were deployed to the region to ensure troop safety:
“We're concerned about potential escalation. In fact, what we're seeing is a — is a prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region, and because of that, we're going to do what's necessary to make sure that our troops are in the right — in a good position, and they're protected, and that we have the ability to respond,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
All eyes continue to be on Israel's northern border, where the tit-for-tat strikes with Hezbollah continue ramping up.
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A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has announced over the weekend that Hezbollah has escalated its attacks against northern Israel which risks "dragging Lebanon into a war."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday issued the same words in his own warning for Hezbollah, saying it must avoid making "the mistake of its life" by deciding to join the war in partnership with Hamas.
"If Hezbollah decides to enter the war, it will long for the Second Lebanon War," Netanyahu said in comments made before a unit of elite commando forces in northern Israel. "It will be making the mistake of its life. We will hit it with a force it cannot even imagine, and the meaning for it and the Lebanese state will be devastating."
Since the Oct.7 Hamas attack on southern Israel there have been a handful of casualties on either side of the Lebanese border. In at least one instance so far, Hezbollah scored a direct hit on an IDF military vehicle, which likely resulted in Israeli troop deaths and injuries. The group backed by Iran uploaded the video to the internet in order to show off its advanced capabilities.
Israel has in response sent artillery and missiles against Hezbollah positions, as well as against some residential areas of south Lebanon. Americans and other foreigners have been heeding warnings to get out of Lebanon while they still can.
Typically if a broader conflict involving Lebanon opens up, Israel strikes Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport, the only commercial airport in Lebanon, as it did in 2006.
Hawks within Israel and the US want to use this to deliver a 'death blow' to Hezbollah, which is by all accounts a more formidable and better-armed force than Hamas in Gaza, as The Guardian underscores, "The Israeli government is coming under growing pressure from security establishment hawks to launch a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah in Lebanon – but is facing strong opposition from the US, which fears a two-front war would risk igniting a major regional conflict."
Israeli PM Netanyahu, a former member of Sayeret Matkal, speaking to Israeli commandos near Lebanon: “If Hezbollah goes to war with Israel, it will make the mistake of its life.”pic.twitter.com/QNbEhbymtI— Lucas Tomlinson (@LucasFoxNews) October 22, 2023
Others want Israel to focus on Gaza, in order not to get bogged down in a conflict that could overwhelm Israel's military:
But President Biden used his time in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and visits by top US defence officials in the days before, to urge the Israeli leadership not to risk such a pre-emptive strike on the Iran-backed militia, the New York Times reported, and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately cooled on the idea.
Still, Israel is clearly taking measures to prepare for a possible all-out fight on its northern border, at this point having evacuated dozens of communities which lie within two kilometers of the border.
On Sunday, the defense minister confirmed that another 14 towns and villages have been told to evacuate, in addition to the 28 initially ordered to do so last week. "According to the IDF and Defense Ministry, the 14 communities being added to the list are: Snir, Dan, Beit Hillel, She’ar Yashuv, Hagoshrim, Liman, Matzuva, Eylon, Goren, Gornot HaGalil, Even Menachem, Sasa, Tziv’on and Ramot Naftali," Times of Israel details.
An active battlefront...
Hostilities between #Hezbollah & #Israel ratcheted up a notch today — tonight, the @IDF hit back with the heaviest artillery shelling yet, across parts of south #Lebanon, with reports of an airstrike in #Jezzine, deeper in the interior.— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) October 21, 2023
An active battle front now. pic.twitter.com/MXxAxQ8KUO
Hezbollah has not only been using anti-tank missiles, but has rolled out with guided missiles amid ongoing fire exchanged between both sides. Israel has lately stood accused of using controversial white phosphorus shells as well.
A broader war would likely bring Iran and Israel into a direct clash, and possibly Syria too. On Sunday Israel attacked Damascus and Aleppo international airports for the third time this month.
The scenario becomes all the more dangerous given the presence of US carrier strike groups in the region, and more recently some six Chinese warships in Mideast waters, watching the situation closely. And Russia has of course long had a strong military presence in Syria.