Gaza braces for Israeli ground assault as fears of conflict spreading grow
Iran has warned of far-reaching consequences if Israeli bombardments continue
Gaza/Jerusalem — Israel was preparing on Sunday to launch a ground assault in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, after telling Palestinians living in the densely populated territory to flee south towards a closed border with Egypt.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Lebanese militant group Hezbollah not to start a war on a second front, warning of the “destruction of Lebanon” if it did.
Israel has vowed to annihilate Hamas in retaliation for a rampage in which its fighters stormed through Israeli towns a week ago, shooting civilians and seizing scores of hostages in the worst attack on civilians in Israel’s history.
About 1,300 people were killed in an onslaught that shocked Israel over the killing and graphic mobile phone footage and reports from medical and emergency services of atrocities in the towns and kibbutzim that were overrun.
In response, Israeli jets and artillery subjected Gaza to the most intense bombardment it has seen, putting the enclave, home to 2.3-million Palestinians, under total siege.
Gaza authorities say more than 2,200 people were killed, a quarter of them children, and nearly 10,000 wounded. Rescue workers searched desperately for survivors of night time air raids.
Thousands of Palestinians fled the north of the Gaza Strip on Saturday from the path of the expected Israeli ground assault, while Israel pounded the area with more air strikes and said it kept two roads open to let people escape.
US President Joe Biden called Netanyahu and, while reiterating “unwavering” support, discussed international co-ordination to ensure innocent civilians have access to water, food and medical care.
Biden also spoke with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who stressed the urgent need for humanitarian aid corridors in Gaza.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Palestinians would “remain in our land” even as 1-million Gaza residents were reported to have fled their homes since Israel began its bombardment.
The surprise Hamas attack on October 7 launched the region into a new crisis as furious Israeli leaders prepare to respond with crushing force.
“IDF [Israel Defence Forces] soldiers and battalions are deployed across the country and are increasing operational readiness for the next stages of the war, with an emphasis on significant ground operations,” the military said in a statement. This will include air, sea and land assaults and cover an “expanded arena of combat”.
On Friday, the Israeli military told people in the northern half of the Gaza Strip, which includes the enclave’s biggest settlement Gaza City, to move south at once. On Saturday, it said it would guarantee the safety of Palestinians fleeing on two main roads until 4pm (3pm SA time). As the deadline passed, troops were massing around Gaza.
Hamas has told people not to leave and says roads out are unsafe. It says dozens of people were killed in strikes on cars and trucks carrying refugees on Friday, which Reuters could not independently verify. Israel says Hamas is preventing people from leaving to use them as human shields, which Hamas denies.
In one Gaza City neighbourhood that Israel ordered evacuated, bombs from planes hit several houses during the night, residents said.
“We lived a night of horror. Israel punished us for not wanting to leave our home. Is there brutality worse than this?” a father of three said by telephone from a hospital where he took refuge. He declined to give his name, saying he feared reprisals.
“I prefer to die and not leave, but I can’t see my wife and children die before my eyes.”
The Palestinian Red Crescent said it received an Israeli order to evacuate the hospital by 4pm, but will not do so because it had a humanitarian duty to keep providing services to the ill and wounded.
‘Release of the women and children’
The attacks on Israel plunged the nation into deep grief and galvanised it for war, with hundreds of thousands of reservists mobilised within days.
Kibbutz Kfar Aza farmer Avichai Brodetz, whose wife and three children were taken captive to Gaza, set up camp outside the Israeli army headquarters to focus attention on the plight of kidnapped Israelis.
“The first thing that needs to happen is the release of the women and children,” he said.
Hamas’ armed wing said Israeli air strikes killed nine captives including four foreigners overnight. Hamas had threatened to kill one hostage for every building Israel strikes without warning.
Israel’s attacks on Gaza failed to halt Hamas missile strikes deep into Israeli cities.
The only route out of Gaza not under Israeli control was a checkpoint with Egypt at Rafah. Egypt says officially its side is open, but traffic has been halted for days because of Israeli strikes. Egyptian security sources said the Egyptian side is being reinforced and Cairo has no intention of accepting a mass influx of refugees.
A US state department official said the US is working to open the crossing to let some people out, and was in touch with Palestinian-Americans who want to leave Gaza. Washington said later it told its citizens to try to reach the crossing.
US officials said on Saturday that 29 US citizens were killed in the Hamas attacks and 15 were unaccounted for.
Countries and aid agencies have sent supplies to Egypt but have been unable to bring them into Gaza. Israel says nothing can enter through Rafah without its co-ordination.
Israel says its evacuation order is a humanitarian gesture to protect residents while it roots out Hamas fighters. The UN says so many people cannot be safely moved within Gaza without causing a humanitarian disaster.
The Gaza violence was accompanied by the deadliest clashes at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon since 2006, raising fear of another front opening.
Lebanon’s armed Hezbollah movement, like Hamas a close ally of Iran, said it fired at five Israeli outposts in the disputed Shebaa Farms area with guided missiles and mortar bombs.
Reuters saw missiles fired at an Israeli army post and heard shelling from Israel and gunfire.
Israel’s Kan radio reported five border villages were under lockdown in response to a suspected incursion from Lebanon.
Security adviser Hanegbi said Israel was “trying not to be drawn into a two-front war”, and warned Hezbollah to stay out of the fighting.
“We hope Hezbollah won’t, de facto, bring about the destruction of Lebanon, because if there is a war there the result will be no less,” he said, alluding to long-standing Israeli threats to launch heavy strikes on the country in a bid to stem launches of Hezbollah's extensive missile arsenal.
Washington wants to ensure Iran and Iran-backed groups such as Hezbollah do not enter the conflict. The White House said Biden reiterated his warning on Saturday against anyone seeking to expand the conflict.
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