A mysterious Volkswagen van drew the attention of al-Qassam Brigade fighters, setting off a shoot-out and then a chase across southern Gaza
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip - Seven Palestinians, including a commander of Hamas' military wing, and one Israeli soldier were killed late on Sunday after Israeli special forces entered the Gaza Strip in the most overt incursion since the 2014 war.
The area suddenly turned into a war zone. The sky was red. We felt the helicopter landing to evacuate the special forces team
- Amar Khalil, eyewitness
The purpose behind the raid, which involved a chase, a helicopter rescue and hours of Israeli air strikes, remained a mystery even as it sparked further violence, with Hamas launching rockets into southern Israel and Israeli air strikes in Gaza on Monday evening.
The unusual turn of events, say residents of the southern city of Khan Younis, began around 9pm on Sunday night when several members of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades - Hamas' armed wing - spotted a Volkswagen bus sitting at a corner in an isolated area and grew suspicious.
A Palestinian fighter told Middle East Eye that Nour Baraka, a 37-year-old field commander, and his assistant stopped the van and asked the passengers for their IDs when shots were fired - with Palestinian forces opening fire first, according to Israeli news site Walla.
The passengers and Baraka traded fire. Baraka was killed, and his assistant and an Israeli soldier were injured. The assistant radioed to other members of the group, giving details about the bus and telling them to chase it down, the fighter said.
As members of the al-Qassam Brigades tailed the van, drones and F-16s filled the sky around 9:30pm, striking Khan Younis at least 40 separate times, presumably to give the Israeli forces cover to escape, he said.
Amar Khalil, a Palestinian who lives in nearby Khuza, told MEE: “We suddenly heard a huge explosion. The drones were flying at a very low level. All we heard was shooting with guns, and the F-16s intervened with air strikes. The house was shaking."
The longer they chased the bus, the more Palestinians were killed. By the end of the night, Baraka and six others - Naji Abu Khater, 21; Mohammed Majid Moussa al-Qara, 23; Alaa al-Din Mohammed Qwaider, 22; Mustafa Hassan Mohammed Abu Odeh, 21; Mahmoud Attallah Musabeh 25, and Alaa Fawzi Mohammed Fseifes, 19 - were dead.
An Israeli Druze soldier, identified in the Israeli media as 41-year-old Lt Col M, was also killed.
Back in Gaza, the van arrived in Abasan al-Kbira, a town about four kilometres away from Khan Younis, near the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. A helicopter landed, rescuing the Israelis, and air strikes continued until midnight, said Khalil.
“The area suddenly turned into a war zone. The sky was red. We felt the helicopter landing to evacuate the special forces team," he said.
Residents look at damaged vehicles in Khuza on Monday (MEE/Mohammad Asad)
Early on Monday morning, residents discovered three separate vehicles used during the operation that Israeli forces destroyed in air strikes, abandoned in Khuza. One was fully equipped with electronic equipment which was thought to have helped the Israelis collect intelligence during the mission, according to eyewitnesses and a cameraman.
The Volkswagen van was equipped with food, beds, tents, wheelchairs, electric cables and communication devices, they said. The third vehicle was severely damaged.
“The three vehicles were bombed by the Israeli forces, to hide the crime scenes and to damage the technological tools that the Palestinians could use in the future," the al-Qassam fighter told MEE.
The al-Qassam Brigades closed off the area involved on Sunday night, took all of the items left behind and banned journalists or residents from taking any photos, except the damaged cars.
On Monday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was called back from Paris in the wake of the incident, Israeli officials refused to reveal specific details about the operation, but said they had not intended to kill or arrest anyone.
A former Israeli general told the BBC that he believes the incident was likely an intelligence-gathering operation that went wrong.
Overt Israeli ground operations in Gaza are very rare. The last time Israel special forces openly entered the strip was during the war in 2014. However, as +972 Magazine has reported, UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs data shows that between 2015 and 2018, the Israeli army has made 262 ground incursions and operations inside Gaza.
But residents in Gaza were shocked on Monday, telling MEE that they never imagined Israeli forces would enter the enclave. How were the Israelis able to go three kilometres into Gaza with a vehicle, they wondered. Had this happened before? What was the main aim?
It was also the timing of Sunday's operation that raised questions. Truce talks, mediated by Egypt, the United Nations and Qatar, are currently underway between Hamas and Israel, and Netanyahu took flack last week from his political rivals for allowing Qatar to transfer $15mn to pay the salary arrears of Palestinian civil servants.
Before leaving Paris, he said he wanted to ease the humanitarian crisis in the coastal enclave.
After the operation, the al-Qassam Brigades released a statement describing what happened as a failed operation and “a cowardly Israeli attack”.
The group stressed that Israel was to blame for their reaction and any future consequences resulting from it. Late on Monday, Hamas launched more than 80 rockets into southern Israel hitting a bus, critically injuring a 19-year-old Israeli and lightly injuring six more Israelis.
Meanwhile, the Israeli fighter jets launched strikes on Gaza, killing three Palestinians.