A weekend of combat in Gaza kills 15 Israeli soldiers as public support for the war is tested

December 24, 2023  -DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza (AP) — Fifteen Israeli soldiers have been killed in combat in Gaza over the weekend, the Israeli military said Sunday, while tentative efforts continued on a deal for another exchange of hostages for Palestinians held by Israel.

As Christmas Eve fell, smoke still rose over Gaza from the fighting, while Bethlehem in the West Bank was hushed, its holiday celebrations called off.

The mounting death toll among Israeli troops — 154 since the ground offensive began — could erode public support for the war, which was sparked when Hamas-led militants stormed communities in southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 and taking 240 hostage.

The war has devastated parts of Gaza, killed roughly 20,400 Palestinians and displaced almost all of the besieged territory’s 2.3 million people. The Health Ministry in Gaza said 166 people were killed in the coastal enclave over the past day.

Israelis still largely stand behind the country’s stated goals of crushing Hamas’ governing and military capabilities and releasing the remaining 129 captives. That’s despite rising international pressure against Israel’s offensive, and the soaring death toll and unprecedented suffering among Palestinians.

HAMAS EXACTS A PRICE

“The war exacts a very heavy price from us, but we have no choice but to continue fighting,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

There has been widespread anger against his government, which many criticize for failing to protect civilians on Oct. 7 and promoting policies that allowed Hamas to gain strength over the years. Netanyahu has avoided accepting responsibility for the military and policy failures.

“Over time, the public will find it hard to ignore the heavy price paid, as well as the suspicion that the aims that were loudly heralded are still far from being attained, and that Hamas is showing no signs of capitulating in the near future,” wrote Amos Harel, military affairs commentator for the Haaretz newspaper.

On Sunday, the Israeli military said it had completed the dismantling of Hamas’ underground headquarters in northern Gaza, part of an operation to take down the vast tunnel network and kill off top commanders that Israeli leaders have said could take months.

Efforts toward negotiations continued. On Sunday, the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, arrived in Egypt for talks. The militant group, which also took part in the Oct. 7 attack, said it was prepared to consider releasing hostages only after fighting ends. Hamas’ top leader Ismail Haniyeh traveled to Cairo for talks days earlier.

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