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Eight Israeli troops killed in Rafah; Gazans prepare for somber Eid holiday

An Israeli soldier guards in an army vehicle as it is moving along the border with the Gaza Strip on Monday in southern Israel.  (Amir Levy)
By Adela Suliman and Mohamad El Chamaa Washington Post

Eight Israeli troops were killed in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday after their armored vehicle was targeted with an explosive device, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The soldiers, part of a combat engineering battalion, were operating in the Tal al-Sultan neighborhood in western Rafah, according to IDF spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, who said the blast took place at 5:15 a.m. local time.

“The explosion was significant,” Hagari said in a statement announcing the military’s preliminary findings. “There was very serious damage to the vehicle and those in it … making it difficult to identify and locate the bodies.”

The IDF began military operations in Rafah last month, vowing to dismantle what it said was Hamas’ four remaining battalions. IDF troops seized the border crossing with Egypt and displaced nearly 1 million people who sought refuge in Rafah after fleeing bombardment elsewhere in Gaza.

Saturday was particularly deadly for Israeli forces, which have suffered few mass casualty incidents as a result of a single attack. The deaths brought the number of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza to 306.

A counterterrorism officer was also killed while participating in the June 8 hostage raid in Nuseirat.

At a rally in Tel Aviv Saturday, one of the rescued hostages, Andrey Kozlov, addressed the crowd via video message. Hostage families and their supporters have held weekly demonstrations to urge the government to reach a cease-fire deal with Hamas.

“For the hostages that are still in Gaza, there is one decision, only one,” Koslov said. “It is a deal between Israel and Hamas. I ask them to bring them home as soon as possible.”

Across the Palestinian territory, Muslim families prepared Saturday for the upcoming Eid al-Adha holiday marking the end of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. But food and clean water remain scarce, residents and aid agencies say, and many families are also observing the holiday without their loved ones who were killed in the war.

People in Gaza are “eating pigeon food” to survive, the Doctors Without Borders humanitarian group said Saturday, while World Food Program deputy executive director Carl Skau said at least 1 million people in southern Gaza are “trapped, without clean water or sanitation.”

“From the south to the northernmost tip of the Strip, people are traumatized and exhausted,” Skau wrote on X. “The level of destruction is shocking. And the challenges our staff are facing when doing their lifesaving work are like nothing I have ever seen.”

Many Muslims will fast on Saturday in solidarity with those on the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. On Sunday, more than a billion Muslims across the world will celebrate Eid al-Adha, commemorating the sacrifice that Ibrahim was prepared to make of his son Ismail, as recounted in the Quran.

“Last year there was joy, families were together,” Omar Abu Nada, a 30-year-old in Gaza City, told the Post. “This year the basic components of life are nowhere to be found. … Children cannot play. There is nothing at all. Last year there was life; this year we are alive but dead.”

“There is no Eid. There is no meat. There is no joy,” said Yahya Almahdoun, a 45-year-old resident of northern Gaza.

It is customary to slaughter sheep during Eid al-Adha and give meat to the hungry. But, he said, at the local place where people bought the animals before the war, “there’s not one single sheep.”

“The person who used to sell sheep can’t even find food to feed his family,” Almahdoun said.

Marwan Abu Nassar, administrative director at al-Awda Hospital in the Nuseirat area of Gaza, said that despite the challenges last year, Eid “was many times better. There was stability and calm. There was no overcrowding. There was good food and water.”

“The current situation is completely different now that the war has contributed to the destruction of health facilities and affected all aspects of life. … There is only death, destruction, hunger and disease.” Asked if there was the slightest mood of Eid in the air, he replied: “There is only the smell of death.”

Here’s what to know

- The Biden administration announced sanctions against an extremist Israeli group that has been blocking aid convoys into Gaza. For several months Tsav 9, a group with ties to West Bank settlers and Israeli military reservists, has been attacking and impeding aid convoys. Friday’s sanctions were a bid to halt activity that U.S. officials say is inflaming tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and worsening the already grim circumstances for civilians in the enclave.

- The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF warned that almost 3,000 children have been cut off from treatment for malnutrition in southern Gaza, “putting them at risk of death as harrowing violence and displacement continue to impact access to health care facilities.” There are “only two stabilization centers for severely malnourished children” functioning in the Gaza Strip, OCHA, the U.N. humanitarian agency, said in an update Friday.

- U.S. Central Command said it had “successfully destroyed two Houthi uncrewed surface vessels in the Red Sea” late Friday, as well as a drone launched from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen. “It was determined these systems presented an imminent threat to U.S., coalition forces, and merchant vessels in the region,” said Centcom. Yemen continues to target Western military and commercial ships in a campaign to halt the Gaza war.

- At least 37,296 people have been killed and 85,197 injured in Gaza since the war started, according to the Gaza Health Ministry on Saturday, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, including more than 300 soldiers, and it says 298 soldiers have been killed since the launch of its military operations in Gaza.

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Suliman reported from London; El Chamaa from Beirut. Hazem Balousha contributed to this report.