Israel’s military announced intensified strikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza ahead of a planned ground invasion, as the Pentagon said Sunday it was bolstering defences in the Middle East over “escalations” by Iran and its allies.
A first trickle of aid entered the blockaded Gaza Strip on Saturday, but the 20 trucks permitted to cross were described as a “drop in the ocean” given the “catastrophic” humanitarian situation for 2.4 million residents.
The military has pounded Gaza with relentless strikes in response to Hamas’s murderous October 7 attack, in which militants killed at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians who were shot, mutilated or burnt to death, according to Israeli officials.
The bombing campaign has killed more than 4,300 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and reduced swathes of the densely-populated territory to smouldering ruins.
Over 40 percent of all housing has been damaged or destroyed, according to the UN citing local authorities, and Israel has halted the delivery of food, water, fuel and electricity.
Israel will now intensify its bombardment, to minimise the risks to its troops when they begin a ground invasion, military spokesman Admiral Daniel Hagari said.
“From today, we are increasing the strikes and minimising the danger,” he said.
“We will increase the attacks and therefore I called on Gaza City residents to continue moving south for their safety.”
Israel has warned more than one million residents of the northern part of Gaza to move south for their safety, and the UN says more than half the enclave’s population is now internally displaced.
Bombardment has continued in southern parts of the Strip though, with Hamas authorities reporting nine killed in an airstrike in Khan Younis overnight.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to remain in and around Gaza City in the north, unwilling or unable to leave.
The conflict has raised fears of a broader regional war, and Washington said it would deploy defence batteries and additional Patriot battalions to protect US forces.
The Pentagon also said it was notifying additional troops “prepare to deploy orders” without specifying how many or when they could be dispatched.
– Qatar negotiating for hostage releases –
Israeli troops have massed on the border with Gaza and commanders visited frontline units on Saturday to rally troops.
“Gaza is densely populated, the enemy is preparing a lot of things there — but we are also preparing for them,” chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi told one infantry brigade on a visit.
A ground invasion poses myriad challenges for Israeli troops, who are likely to face Hamas booby traps and tunnels, and must also weigh the safety of over 200 hostages abducted by the militants.
Two American hostages were released on Friday evening, after mediation from Qatar, which said more could be freed “very soon.”
“We are taking a path that will very soon lead to release of the hostages, especially civilians,” Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari told the German Welt am Sonntag newspaper Saturday.
“We are currently working on an agreement under which all civilian hostages will be initially released,” he added.
After negotiations and US pressure, food, water and medicine, but no fuel, crossed from Egypt into Gaza on Saturday.
The crossing closed afterwards, and UN officials warned much more was needed.
“Gaza was a desperate humanitarian situation before the most recent hostilities,” five UN agencies said in a statement.
“It is now catastrophic. The world must do more.”
– ‘Something needs to be done’ –
At a peace summit in Egypt, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged a humanitarian ceasefire “to end this godawful nightmare.”
The summit ended without a joint statement however, as Western officials demanded a clear condemnation of Hamas, and Arab attendees issued their own statement criticising world leaders.
Inside Gaza, shellshocked residents said they were unsure where to go or how to protect their families.
“Even in my worst nightmares, I never thought this could be possible,” said Rami Abu Wazna, staring at the destruction in central Gaza’s Al-Zahra neighbourhood.
The scale of the bombing has left basic systems unable to function, with the UN reporting dozens of unidentified bodies were buried in a mass grave in Gaza City because cold storage had run out.
Across the border in Israel’s Kibbutz Beeri, where Hamas militants killed 10 percent of the population, funerals will be held Sunday.
Romy Gold, 70, said residents were still struggling to comprehend the attack.
“Around us whole families were shot or butchered or burned alive,” he told AFP.
The ground invasion of Gaza “cannot come fast enough,” he added.
“Something needs to be done.”
– ‘Very dangerous game’ –
The conflict has touched off fresh violence in the West Bank, where dozens of Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids and settler attacks. Israel’s military said Sunday it killed “terror operatives” in an airstrike on a mosque in Jenin.
There were also fresh exchanges of fire across Israel’s border with Lebanon, as Israel’s military warned militant group Hezbollah was “dragging Lebanon into a war.”
“Hezbollah is playing a very, very dangerous game. They’re escalating the situation. We see more and more attacks every day,” army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said.
Western leaders have warned Hezbollah against intervening in the conflict, but the group’s number two said it was ready to step up involvement.
“Let’s be clear, as events unfold, if something comes up that calls for greater intervention by us, we will do so,” Naim Qassem said.
Israel has evacuated dozens of northern communities, and nearly 4,000 people in Lebanon have fled border areas for the southern city of Tyre.
“All my children are young. If the apocalypse comes, how will I get them all out in one go?” said Mustafa al-Sayyid, in a classroom stripped of desks and dotted with thin mattresses.
“So I thought, better to leave now.”