Eight Israeli soldiers killed in southern Gaza in deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months | The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

JERUSALEM — An explosion in southern Gaza killed eight Israeli soldiers, the army said Saturday, making it the deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months.

The attack, which spanned more than eight months in a brutal war that shows little sign of ending soon, was likely to fuel new calls for a ceasefire from Israeli protesters. It also came as the government faced widespread anger over exemptions from military service for young ultra-Orthodox men.

Israel launched an air and ground invasion of Gaza in response to a cross-border attack by Hamas and other militants on October 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage. The Israeli offensive has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, who do not distinguish between civilians and fighters. It has also unleashed a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, where more than 80% of the population has been displaced and Israeli restrictions and continued fighting have hampered efforts to deliver humanitarian aid, fueling widespread hunger.

Saturday’s explosion took place in Rafah, a southern city that Israel has identified as Hamas’s last major stronghold. It sent ground troops to the city in early May and has given no indication when the operation will end.

“They knew they might have to sacrifice their lives, but they did it so we could live in this country. I greet them and embrace their families,” Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

The military said the explosion occurred just after 5 a.m. in the Tal al-Sultan area of ​​Rafah. Vice Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, said the attack was caused by an explosive device planted by Hamas or by an anti-tank missile.

“We must defeat Hamas’ Rafah Brigade and we will do so with determination,” he said.

In January, 21 Israeli troops were killed in a single attack by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

President Joe Biden unveiled a new ceasefire proposal earlier this month that would see the release of about 120 hostages remaining in Gaza and an end to the fighting. Although the international community has broadly embraced the plan, both Israel and Hamas have expressed doubts. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will not stop the war until he achieves the twin objectives of destroying Hamas’ military and administrative capabilities.

“Today we have once again paid a heartbreaking price in our just war for the defense of the homeland,” Netanyahu said on Saturday. “With deep sorrow, in deep mourning, I, together with all the citizens of Israel, bow my head and mourn the fall of our heroic fighters.”

The inconclusive war has divided the Israeli public, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets every Saturday evening to call on the government to strike a deal that will bring the hostages home. The Israeli government has already declared more than 40 of the hostages held by Hamas dead, and officials fear that number will increase the longer they remain in captivity.

During a meeting Saturday evening, participants watched a video message from Andrei Kozlov, who was rescued from Hamas captivity a week ago.

“There are still more than 120 hostages and I cannot feel all the happiness of this situation because I was rescued and they were not,” he said, according to the headquarters of the Hostages Families Forum. “I ask to bring them home as soon as possible. Israel, the world, Hamas, I ask you to make a deal as soon as possible.”

The deadly explosion also comes days after Netanyahu’s coalition voted in favor of extending controversial military service plan exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men.

Although the vote was purely procedural, it caused an uproar at a time when Israel continues to fight Hamas militants in Gaza and Hezbollah militants along the country’s northern border with Lebanon and the death toll continues to rise. According to the army, more than 600 soldiers have been killed in fighting since October 7.

Last month, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered an end to government subsidies for ultra-Orthodox men who do not serve in the military. But Netanyahu’s government, which includes politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, has found ways to keep money flowing to religious institutions.

The government is still mandated to adopt a new bill.

Most Jewish men and women must serve in the military from the age of 18. The exemptions granted to religious men have long been a source of contention among the broader public.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was the only member of Netanyahu’s coalition to vote against this week’s legislation. Gallant, a member of the country’s war cabinet, has urged that all sectors of Israeli society make an equal contribution during the war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

If Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners leave the government, the country would be forced into new elections at a time when Netanyahu’s popularity is low and his re-election prospects are in doubt.

Months of ceasefire negotiations have failed to find common ground between Israel and Hamas. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Hamas was proposing changes to a US-backed plan, some of which he said were “workable” and others were not.

Hamas has consistently called for a permanent ceasefire and the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza as part of a deal that would see the hostages released. Although the proposal announced by US President Joe Biden includes these two provisions, Hamas has expressed concerns about whether Israel will commit to them.

Meanwhile, violence has flared in the West Bank since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. On Saturday, a 16-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli forces near the northern city of Nablus, the Ramallah-based Health Ministry said. An Israeli security official confirmed that Israeli forces opened fire on Palestinians who threw stones at troops during a counter-terrorism operation in the area. He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement by the military.