IDF Lt. Col. M., 41, was killed and another officer was moderately wounded in a fire exchange that erupted late Sunday night between an Israeli special force conducting a mission in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian terrorists.
Lt. Col. M. is survived by a wife and two children. He will be laid to rest at 3pm on Monday in his community. Communications Minister Ayoob Kara will represent the government at the funeral.
According to Hamas, The IDF force entered the Gaza Strip to kill Nour el-Deen Baraka, the Khan Yunis Brigade commander in the terror group's military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. The IDF has denied the purpose of the mission was to kill or abduct Gazans.
The force was apparently discovered by the Palestinians, and the two sides exchanged fire, during which Lt. Col. M. was killed and the second officer was wounded.
Hamas said IAF aircraft then came to the Israeli force's aid, bombing the area to cover for the force's extraction. Six additional Hamas fighters were killed in the IAF strikes.
In the wake of the incident, the Palestinians launched 17 rockets at Israel and several Red Code rocket-alert sirens were sounded throughout the night. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted three rockets.
The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said that "An IDF officer, Lt. Col. M., was killed during operational activity in the Gaza strip. A message was delivered to his family. The IDF sends its condolences to the family and will continue accompanying it."
The wounded officer was evacuated to the Soroka University Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. He underwent surgery during the night and is hospitalized at the Intensive Care Unit in moderate and stable condition.
The IDF said that the uncovered mission is only the tip of the iceberg of activities meant to establish Israeli superiority. "The force acted with bravery and with determination. The purpose of the operation was not to kill or abduct, and lessons will be learned from the incident. IDF forces are highly prepared for a variety of scenarios and our forces have been reinforced," the military said.
"The IDF launches such missions only after serious deliberations, which often remain classified. We have been preparing for this mission for a long time," the army added.
Lt. Col. M was the most senior soldier killed in Gaza since the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman mourned the loss of Lt. Col. M. "The State of Israel lost an accomplished fighter whose contribution to the country's security will remain secret for many years to come. I send my deepest condolences to the family and swift recovery wishes to the officer who was wounded in the incident," he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Paris during the incident, rushed to return to Israel on Monday morning. "I bow my head at the loss of Lt. Col. M., a lauded fighter who was killed during an IDF mission in Gaza. Someday the full scope of his heroism will be revealed. Israel's citizens owe him so much. Our forces acted tonight courageously. I salute Lt. Col. M., his family, and his comrades-in-arms. May his memory be blessed. "
Most of the details of the IDF special force's entanglement in Gaza and the circumstances leading to the death of Lt. Col. M will remain classified.
IDF Spokesperson Brig. General Ronen Manelis said the force conducted an elaborated mission facing a complex situation.
"The force heroically acted to remove (security) threats, carrying out a very complex rescue mission, during which the force hurt those threatening it," Manelis said. "The chief of staff, alongside the head of the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate and additional commanders personally oversaw this mission."
Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman held a situation assessment Monday morning, during which they "discussed the preparations of the IDF and security forces to face future developments (in Gaza). The IDF will bolster its forces in the Southern Command and is prepared to use great power if needed."
Eisenkot also send his condolences to Lt. Col. M.'s family, stating the army owes him more than it is possible to elaborate.
The GOC Southern Command declared the area between route 232 and the Gaza border a closed military zone. Additional IDF battalions were mobilized to reinforce the troops on the Gaza border.
The Home Front Command announced Sunday night that school would be canceled on Monday in the Gaza border communities. The Israel Railways shut down the Ashkelon-Be'er Sheva line due to the security situation. Trains coming from the north will terminate their operation in Ashkelon, while the Sderot, Ofakim and Netivot stations will remain closed.
Since the incident, the IDF has sent reinforcements to Iron Dome batteries in southern Israel, but kept the Kerem Shalom and Erez border crossings open—possibly in an attempt to avoid further escalation.
Hamas: 'We pursued the IDF force to the border'
Hamas's military wing claimed a "special IDF force infiltrated Gaza, traveling in a civilian vehicle east of Khan Yunis, where the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades discovered the force."
According to the terror organization, the Khan Yunis Brigade commander Baraka arrived at the scene after the Israeli force was spotted. A fire exchange then erupted between the two sides, during which Baraka was killed.
"The IDF vehicle attempted to flee following its failed mission, and the IAF intervened to cover its escape. However, our forces continued chasing the IDF troops to the border fence, leading to the death of an Israeli officer and the injury of an IDF soldier," Hamas said.
"The blood of the Shahids (martyrs) was not spilled in vain. The resistance taught the enemy a hard lesson, and turned its intelligence apparatus into a joke. Despite all of its efforts, the resistance managed to chase the enemy away from Gaza, and it will continue pull the trigger. The battle between Israel and us is ongoing and the enemy will not enjoy security on our lands. We will not allow it to take advantage of our country and our nation," Hamas concluded.
The Islamic Jihad also issued a statement addressing overnight Sunday's events. "We congratulate the fighters for confronting our enemies with bravery, determination, and full coordination. The resistance is united in this confrontation. The resistance stresses that the retaliation for the Israeli aggression is ongoing. Following the failure of the Israeli mission, the enemy should know we will respond to this violation and that terrorism will backfire on it," the statement read.
The Palestinians released footage of the vehicle they claimed was used by the special IDF force. According to Hamas, the vehicle was destroyed by the IAF after the troops were extracted from the area.
The footage indicates the IAF's heavy bombardment of Gaza to rescue the force, with mostly combat helicopters firing missiles.
In an act of psychological warfare, Hamas has been distributing photos through official and unofficial channels of snipers with the caption: "The eye of the resistance is never shut."
The terror organization might be implying it plans to retaliate for the night's events with sniper fire or anti-tank fire, instead of rockets. This is possibly what led the IDF to bolster its presence on the border and restrict train movement in the area.
Yoav Zitun, Elior Levy, Ilana Curiel, Daniel Salami, Matan Tzuri, Attila Somfalvi, and Alexandra Lukash contributed to this report.