(photo credit: AP )
An IDF reservist was killed and another soldier was seriously wounded during two separate IDF operations in the Gaza Strip early Monday morning aimed at curbing rocket fire and uncovering Hamas terror positions and fortifications along the security fence with Israel.
St.-Sgt. Maj. (res.) Ehud Efrati, a 34-year-old father of three and the IDF's third casualty in Gaza this year, was killed in clashes with Palestinian gunmen near the Sufa Crossing in southern Gaza. Two other soldiers from Efrati's paratrooper reservist force were lightly wounded. At least one Hamas gunman was killed during the clashes.
The clashes broke out shortly after midnight during a routine operation by the reservist force which, for the past few weeks, operated almost daily inside Gaza in operations close to the security fence. During the clashes, a grenade - possibly from Efrati's vest - exploded, wounding him and two other soldiers. The three were evacuated to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where Efrati died of his wounds.
Efrati, from Beit Yehoshua, left behind a wife and three children, aged five, four and three. Family and friends eulogized the reservist, who they said was "a loving person who loved to help, a great father to his three children and a fantastic husband."
He was buried at 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Zichron Ya'akov Cemetery.
Efrati moved to Beit Yehoshua following his marriage to Miri, where he worked in the groves, said Eli Beracha, the chairman of the local council of Beit Yehoshua.
Hanoch Belzada, Efrati's brother-in-law said: "We paid our duty to the country."
Brig.-Gen. Moshe "Chico" Tamir, head of the Gaza Division, said Monday that Hamas was trying to establish a bunker system as well as fortified rocket-launching and surveillance positions along the security fence with the Gaza Strip.
Tamir said that Hamas was "building an army" in the Gaza Strip and had obtained unprecedented capabilities through smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. On Monday, head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Yuval Diskin said that since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the Palestinians have smuggled over 112 tons of explosives into the Strip.
"They are trying to dig tunnels, build surveillance positions and mortar-fire stations along the fence," Tamir told reporters during a briefing concerning Efrati's death. "They are trying to build this up and we are trying to stop them."
Tamir said that Hamas was studying Israeli tactics during the IDF's daily operations along the fence and was trying to use this knowledge in its fighting methods.
"This is ongoing warfare and as such there is also a simultaneous brain war taking place," he said. "We are always studying what we do and modifying our tactics. They are trying to study us and to be wise with that knowledge."
Tamir said that for the IDF's current purposes there was no point in expanding the operations deeper into Gaza. He also said that while the IDF was working to reduce the Kassam rocket fire from Gaza, there was no perfect solution.
"They can fire Kassams from one edge of Gaza all the way to the other and farther," he explained. "We are operating close to the fence since that is where they fire mortar shells, anti-tank missiles and dig tunnels."
In Monday's second incident, near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun, Palestinians fired a rocket-propelled grenade at troops from the Golani Brigade operating near the security fence, seriously wounding one of the soldiers. He was evacuated to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon.
IDF troops, backed by tanks and helicopters, had entered the area near the northern Gaza town early Monday morning to track down terrorists and destroy weapons-smuggling tunnels. They encountered fierce resistance, including anti-tank missiles that were fired at the soldiers. An IAF helicopter struck at the armed gunmen. Palestinians reported that a Hamas operative and a civilian were killed.
During the Beit Hanun operation, terrorists began shelling a building where soldiers had taken up position. Several soldiers suffered light burns. Palestinians also fired four mortar shells from Gaza toward the border fence on Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile in the West Bank, a soldier from a Givati Brigade Reconnaissance Unit was moderately wounded Monday morning during an arrest operation in Nablus's Ein Bet Ilmeh refugee camp. The soldier was evacuated to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva. During the operation, three fugitives were arrested.
Shelly Paz contributed to the report.
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