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Israel says 24 soldiers were killed on its deadliest single day during war in Gaza

Family and friends of Israeli reservist Hadar Kapeluk, who was killed in combat in Gaza, mourn at his grave during his funeral at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Family and friends of Israeli reservist Hadar Kapeluk, who was killed in combat in Gaza, mourn at his grave during his funeral at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Twenty-one Israeli reserve soldiers died in a single incident Monday in which two buildings exploded and collapsed on soldiers operating inside after Hamas fired at a nearby tank, the Israeli military said Tuesday.

Another three Israeli soldiers were killed Monday while fighting in southern Gaza, the military said, bringing the day's death toll to 24, the highest number of deaths in a single day for Israel during its war with Hamas.

In total, 221 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the beginning of Israel's ground invasion of Gaza in October, according to the military.

"We share in the sorrow of their families for the heavy loss and know that the pain is unbearable," said Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the Israeli military's chief of staff. "On this day, we feel the great and painful cost of war, but that which we are fighting is necessary and justified."

Deadly building collapse likely caused by Israeli explosives

The deadly incident Monday afternoon occurred near the Gaza-Israel border, where a group of Israeli reservists was "removing structures and terrorist infrastructure," military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a statement Tuesday.

Israeli soldiers prepare and fire mortars from inside Israel into Gaza, backing up troops near the Maghazi refugee camp on Monday.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Israeli soldiers prepare and fire mortars from inside Israel into Gaza, backing up troops near the Maghazi refugee camp on Monday.

As a group of soldiers operated inside and around a pair of buildings that had been laid with explosives, militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a nearby tank, Hagari said.

"The explosion of the structures was most likely from explosives laid by our forces, which were about to be used for demolishing terror infrastructure and buildings in the area," he said. "Simultaneously, there was an explosion that resulted in the collapse of two two-story structures, while most of the force was inside them and nearby."

"This war has a very painful and heavy price," Hagari added.

Additional soldiers were injured in the collapse.

The military wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, saying its forces destroyed a building and a tank guarding the area.

The conflict has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza, health officials there say. The toll includes both combatants and civilians, the majority of whom are women and children.

Calling Monday "one of the most difficult days" since the war began, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was carrying out a "thorough inquiry" into the incident.

Funeralgoers reflect small but growing anti-war sentiment

The news of Monday's deaths comes as sentiment in Israel about the war is shifting. A small but growing minority of Israelis are speaking out against the war, and thousands participated in a protest in Tel Aviv over the weekend calling for Netanyahu to leave office.

Israeli soldiers carry the casket of reservist Elkana Yehuda Sfez, who was killed in combat in Gaza, during his funeral at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Israeli soldiers carry the casket of reservist Elkana Yehuda Sfez, who was killed in combat in Gaza, during his funeral at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

At a funeral Tuesday in the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery outside Tel Aviv, hundreds of people stood in the pouring rain to mourn Ilay Levy, a 24-year-old captain who was killed Monday.

His sister Ori, dressed in military uniform, said in her eulogy that she had enlisted in the army on Monday, hours before she learned her brother had been killed.

"Two days ago, when we spoke on the phone for the last time, you told me, 'Ori, I can't wait to see you in uniform.' So here I am in uniform," she said, as her mother wept.

Of the hundreds who attended the funeral, many knew Levy as a family member, friend or fellow soldier. Others had no relation but attended the funeral as a show of support for Levy's family.

Opinions were split about the direction of the war, though funeralgoers were united in their grief over its cost.

"I think we are in a war of no choice," said Rami Sherman. "We want to live here, to stay here. There are a lot of mistakes and problems, but our only way to survive in the crazy world of the Middle East is to stay united."

Abigail Shir, 24, was a schoolmate of Levy's. "On the one hand, I still think Hamas needs to be destroyed. But sometimes, I question how the war cabinet is doing, like if they make good decisions for us," she said.

"There is a quote in Israel that says, 'It is good to die for our country.' I don't feel like this anymore," she added. "Is it good to die for a country that's not functioning, that celebrates the hate between us?"

Alon Avital contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.