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Hamas claims credit because eight Israeli soldiers were killed in an explosion

JERUSALEM >> Eight Israeli soldiers were killed today while riding in an armored vehicle in the southern Gaza Strip, the Israeli army said, as the country’s offensive in the southern city of Rafah continued to take a toll among its forces.

The deaths occurred around 5:15 a.m. local time when Israeli forces were operating in the northwestern part of Tel al-Sultan, a neighborhood in western Rafah, the Israeli army said. The eight soldiers, who belonged to the army’s engineering staff, were riding in an armored vehicle when the blast occurred, the army said.

Hamas, the Palestinian armed group, said in a statement that its militants had fired anti-tank rockets at Israeli military vehicles in western Rafah, killing some soldiers. It was not immediately clear whether it was an explosive device that damaged the vehicle or anti-tank missile fire, Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel’s military spokesman, told reporters.

The explosion damaged the vehicle but could also ignite the ammunition inside, Israeli military officials said, adding that the blast was serious enough to make finding and identifying the bodies difficult.

Israel has fought in Gaza for more than eight months in the aftermath of the Hamas-led attack on October 7, which killed about 1,200 people in Israel — mostly civilians — and took about 250 others hostage. More than 36,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to Palestinian health officials, who make no distinction between fighters and civilians.

Hamas has waged a persistent guerrilla war, resisting Israel’s efforts to decisively defeat the organization, take down its leaders and return many of those kidnapped in the Oct. 7 surprise attack. The campaign has killed an estimated 13,000 to 14,000 militants in Gaza, according to the Israeli military. Israeli officials have provided no evidence for the calculation.

More than 300 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza began in late October. In late January, about 20 Israeli soldiers were killed as they prepared to demolish buildings in Gaza, near the border with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly mourned the soldiers’ deaths and called on Israel to remain committed to its army’s goals of destroying Hamas, bringing the hostages home and “ensuring that Gaza can no longer to threaten.”

“There is no substitute for victory,” Netanyahu said, adding: “Let no one distract you from the simple and clear fact: we must remain committed to the war objectives, despite the heavy and painful price.”

Netanyahu has been criticized by parts of the Israeli public, the families of hostages held in Gaza and former security officials. Some argue that only a settlement with Hamas will bring back the remaining 120 living and dead prisoners; Others have argued that his failure to formulate a clear post-war alternative to Hamas has left the country trapped in a holding pattern in Gaza.

Israeli forces rescued four hostages last weekend during a rescue operation in central Gaza that also killed dozens of Palestinians, according to local health officials. Hagari welcomed the mission, but added: “We have to be honest – we can’t bring everyone home this way.”

Israeli forces have surrounded Rafah in recent weeks and moved along the border area with Egypt in an attempt to destroy tunnels they say Hamas has used to smuggle weapons into Gaza. They have also carried out raids on the city itself. The United Nations estimates that more than one million Palestinians have fled Rafah.

In the northern town of Beit Jann – populated by Arab Israelis who follow the Druze faith – residents mourned Waseem Mahmoud, one of the fallen soldiers. The Druze occupy an unusual middle position in Israel: Arab practitioners of a minority religion who generally serve in the Israeli army and security forces.

The city’s residents were planning to celebrate Eid al-Adha, a holiday shared by both Muslims and Druze. But all public festivities were called off in light of the news, said Nazih Dabour, the city’s mayor.

“We cannot bury our children and celebrate on the same day,” said Dabour, who delivered a condolence call to the family today. “It’s a huge tragedy for us.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.