The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) completed the encirclement of Gaza City, the hub of the Gaza Strip, on Thursday, setting the stage for a significant phase of the battle against Hamas.
On Thursday, IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said: "Our troops have completed the encirclement of Gaza City, the center of Hamas activity."
On the same day, the IDF lost a tank battalion commander even as IDF’s toll mounted to 18 soldiers ever since the ground offensive began on October 27. In total, more than 330 IDF soldiers had been killed since October 7 when Hamas militants broke through at least 30 points of the fortified fence that separated Gaza from Israel and killed about 1,400 Israelis. The number of Palestinians killed is likely to be around 9,000.
With the IDF encircling Gaza City from all sides and sending in tanks, armoured personnel carriers and troops inside the densely-populated urban settlement, the fighting is taking place in the urban surroundings that had already been heavily bombed by Israeli aircraft.
But what would worry Tel Aviv and its closest ally the US all the more are reports that the Russian mercenary group Wagner’s is closely collaborating with the Hezbollah militia. Both Wagner and Hezbollah are present in Syria in good strength.
Late on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal broke a story sourcing it to unnamed US officials who said that the US had intelligence that the Wagner Group "may provide an air defense system to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia."
While the US official did not affirm whether the air defence system—the SA-22—had already reached Hezbollah or not, it was confirmed that discussions involving Wagner and Hezbollah on the powerful system were indeed taking place.
Mounted on the back of an armoured truck, the Russian-made 'Pantsir' SA-22 intercepts and counters precision-guided air attack from low and extremely low altitudes by using surface-to-air missiles and air defence guns. If armed with the SA-22, the Hezbollah could transform into a powerful adversary to Israel besides opening up another front for the IDF that is more focused on battling the Hamas in the narrow Gaza Strip.
Ever since the Israel-Hamas conflict began in October, there have been a number of reports indicating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) effort to help the Hezbollah in Syria with weapons.
But what adds another dimension is the report of an IRGC 'Mahan Air' aircraft landing at the Russian-controlled airbase of Khmeimim on the Syrian coast in mid-October—making it the first time an Iranian plane has landed at the Russian base—because the Syrian airport of Aleppo was under threat of Israeli attack especially after an IDF attack took place on the airport on October 14.
Mahan Air aircraft transports fighters, weapons, and equipment for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.