JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Tuesday that Israel would not stop fighting in Gaza until "absolute victory" after it sustained its highest single-day death toll in the Palestinian enclave.
Twenty-four soldiers were killed on Monday as intense fighting raged in the southern and central Gaza Strip, where Israel has been attacking remaining strongholds of Gaza's Islamist rulers, Hamas, and trying to clear areas near the border.
It was in one of those border areas that 21 of the soldiers died when there was an explosion in a building and it collapsed.
Netanyahu said Israel had experienced one of its most difficult days of the war. "In the name of our heroes, for the sake of our lives, we will not stop fighting until absolute victory," he said.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said his heart was with the families of those killed on "this difficult and painful morning", but that Israel would not back down.
"This war will determine the future of Israel for decades to come - the fall of soldiers is needed to achieve the goals of the war," he said.
The military said the incident appeared to have started when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a tank guarding troops operating inside Gaza, 600 metres (yards) from the border fence with Israel.
At the same time, an explosion occurred in two two-storey buildings where they had planted explosives, demolishing them.
"We are still examining and investigating the details of the event and the reason for the explosion," said military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari.
He said the operation was meant to clear the frontier of "terrorist infrastructure" and to allow tens of thousands of Israeli evacuees to return home after Hamas' Oct. 7 rampage, which destroyed communities around Gaza and sparked the war.
News of the overnight incident dominated Israeli media coverage throughout the morning, but there was no sign that it had dented public support for the war.
"That’s horrible, that’s horrendous, it’s terrible. You know, it’s our sons, it’s our brothers, it’s terrible - but we got to do what we got to do so that October 7 doesn’t happen again," said Blima Rhodes on the main street in her Jerusalem neighbourhood.
"You have to get rid of Hamas and make Gaza safe for us. Otherwise, we have no place to live."
Israel says its campaign is meant to eliminate Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, and secure the release of over 130 hostages held in Gaza since Oct. 7.
At least 25,295 Gazans have been killed in Israel's bombardment and invasion, according to Gaza health authorities.
About 1,200 Israelis were killed in the Oct. 7 attack, and the military says 210 soldiers have died in the subsequent offensive.
(Reporting by Emily Rose; Editing by Tom Hogue, Kim Coghill and Kevin Liffey)