TEL AVIV – Monday marked the deadliest day for Israel since fighting erupted in Gaza nearly 3 weeks ago. At least 21 Israeli soldiers were killed when two buildings rigged for demolition collapsed unexpectedly in Gaza after militants fired an anti-tank missile nearby. The massive blast likely set off the explosives inside the structures, causing them to implode.
The Israeli troops were operating just 600 yards from the border with Gaza, working to clear a buffer zone on the Palestinian side as part of efforts to allow displaced Israeli residents in the south to safely return home. This devastating incident represented about 10% of all Israeli military casualties since the conflict began. It comes at a time when Israel is working to scale back its ground presence in the besieged enclave.
The fighting first broke out in early October when the militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack in Tel Aviv, killing over 1,200 people, most of them civilians. They also took more than 240 hostages during the initial onslaught, according to Israeli authorities. What followed has been an intensive military campaign to degrade Hamas’s capabilities and infrastructure within Gaza.
Yet this has come at a terrible cost for Gaza’s 2 million residents, most of whom are now internally displaced and suffering severe shortages of food, clean water, medicine and other critical supplies. Palestinian officials estimate over 25,000 people have been killed since hostilities erupted, though exact numbers are hard to verify.
International pressure has steadily mounted for Israel to alter its military tactics or end the campaign outright. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Tuesday to press on “until complete victory”, even after the devastating events of the day before.
The two buildings that collapsed had been rigged with explosives by Israeli forces ahead of a planned demolition. They imploded suddenly after the missile strike triggered the charges prematurely, burying at least 21 troops who were operating nearby. The military is still investigating exactly how the tragic sequence unfolded.
Rescue crews worked late into the night to locate any survivors or recover remains from the rubble. The military later published the names of 17 of the deceased and said the rest would follow soon. All regular military activities were suspended on Tuesday as Israel mourned the enormous loss of life.
While the fighting has slowed in recent days, it still rages fiercely in pockets of southern Gaza, especially Khan Younis where much of Hamas’s leadership is thought to be hiding underground. Israeli officials caution that despite recent progress, the conflict remains far from over.
But the deaths on Monday underscored the increasing risks Israel faces the longer its troops stay mired in Gaza’s dense urban terrain. Public support for the war effort could also waver if military casualties continue mounting.
The collapsed buildings were located in a strategic area that Israel wants to clear out to facilitate the return of tens of thousands of residents evacuated from communities bordering Gaza. Ensuring their safe homecoming is a major priority for Israel’s leadership.
But creating even basic security in Gaza has proven a formidable challenge given the prevalence of improvised explosives and Hamas’s extensive tunnel network. Monday’s tragedy demonstrated how unpredictable and dangerous conditions on the ground remain over 2 weeks into the fighting.
As the soldiers’ families mourn, the military is grappling with hard questions over what went wrong and how else to minimize risks to personnel. The alarming death toll sparked immediate calls for an investigation and careful review of operational practices.
While vowing to press on, Netanyahu also acknowledged the need to draw lessons from the incident and adjust tactics accordingly. But with an elusive enemy entrenched among innocent civilians, solutions remain frustratingly out of reach.
Israelis are united in grief but also more wary than ever about the deadly complexities of urban warfare. Hamas and other militant factions still possess significant capabilities despite Israel’s sustained bombardment. Achieving the lasting security needed for southern residents to return home could require far higher costs than Israel anticipated.
But with the country now mourning its dead, Netanyahu faces growing pressure to justify the mounting sacrifices. Any lack of clear progress risks eroding public support and emboldening Hamas to keep fighting. After the worst single day yet for its troops, Israel is confronting hard truths about the road that still lies ahead.