Israel has stepped up its offensive in Gaza following Hamas’ weekend assault as soldiers who retook villages from the Islamist group’s fighters unveiled the brutality that had been meted out to civilians.
At least 1,200 people were killed in Israel and thousands more injured in Hamas’ October 7 onslaught when armed militants poured over the heavily-fortified border into Israel, raiding homes, rampaging through farms and communities and taking as many as 150 hostages back to Gaza.
Less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, the farming community Be’eri was among the worst-hit, with more than 100 bodies recovered and eyewitnesses describing assailants going door to door, breaking into homes and executing civilians.
In retaliation for the atrocities, Israeli jets have been pounding Gaza – the densely-inhabited coastal strip that Hamas controls – with hundreds of airstrikes, reducing homes and neighborhoods to rubble and a “complete siege” has trapped residents, with many cut off from food and electricity.
Hamas warned Wednesday that its electricity generator “will completely stop within hours,” limiting the ability to provide basic services.
“All basic services in Gaza depend on electricity, and it will not be possible to partially operate them with generators due to the prevention of fuel supplies through the Rafah gate,” the government media office said in a statement.
The IDF has also bolstered troops and tanks along the border as speculation of a possible Israeli ground incursion into Gaza grows.
Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said he has “released all restraints” for the IDF in their fight against Hamas, saying the response will permanently change Gaza.
“They will regret this moment – Gaza will never return to what it was,” Gallant said.
That has deepened fears that Palestinian civilian casualties will continue to rise in the days ahead as Israel responds to the worst attack on its territory in decades.
Airstrikes have killed at least 1,055 people in Gaza, including hundreds of children, women, and entire families, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. It said 5,184 had been wounded.
Dozens of Israeli fighter jets struck more than 70 targets in the Daraja Tuffah area of Gaza Wednesday, where the IDF claimed “a large number of terror attacks against Israel are directed.” The IDF also said it had struck Hamas naval targets in Gaza early Wednesday, which it claimed were used to carry out attacks on the Israeli coastline.
The Palestinian Ministry of Interior Affairs said residential areas in the eastern part of Jabalia and the Qizan al-Najjar region of Khan Yunis came under intense airstrikes, with attacks targeting civilians’ homes and roads, resulting in “direct injuries among citizens,” the ministry said.
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday pledged that the US would make sure Israel has the tools needed to defend itself and is surging military assistance to it.
Part of that includes ammunition and interceptors to replenish the Iron Dome anti-missile system. The first supply of US weapons since Hamas’ attack arrived in Israel late Tuesday evening, according to the IDF.
Biden also confirmed that 14 Americans are among the dead and that American citizens are among those held hostage by Hamas. He called the attacks by Hamas “pure, unadulterated evil” that bring “to mind the worst rampages of ISIS.”
Civilians in Gaza are facing a deepening humanitarian crisis as Israel ramps up its bombardment for a fifth day and what the Israeli government said would be a “complete siege” of the enclave starts to take effect.
The siege, ordered by the Israeli Defense Minister on Monday, would include the halting of supplies of electricity, food, water and fuel, which Israel mainly controls.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said imposition of sieges that endanger civilians by depriving them of essential goods “is prohibited under international humanitarian law.”
“These risks (are) seriously compounding the already dire human rights and humanitarian situation in Gaza, including the capacity of medical facilities to operate, especially in light of the increasing number of injured people,” spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said Tuesday.
Cutting off the water supply to Gaza “affects over 610,000 people and will result in severe shortage of drinking water,” UN OCHA’s Jens Laerke added.
The strikes have already damaged Gaza’s medical infrastructure, say Palestinian officials, and have forced more than 263,000 Palestinians to flee their homes, the United Nations said.
Destruction of infrastructure and streets by Israeli bombs is hampering efforts by medical teams to reach victims, according to the UN.
Officials with the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said four of its employees have died as a result of airstrikes on Gaza and at least 14 of their facilities there have been damaged directly or indirectly.
The agency has been unable to bring any aid into Gaza since Saturday, according to UNRWA Director of Communications Juliette Touma.
Israel controls the movement of residents from Gaza into Israel through two crossings, Erez and Kerem Shalom, both of which have been shut.
The only border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was struck by Israeli warplanes Tuesday, the spokesperson for the Palestinian Interior Ministry Eyad al-Bozom said. The tightly controlled Rafah crossing is the only one available to Gazans looking to flee.
The IDF said it struck the Rafah area Tuesday, including an underground tunnel used for “smuggling weapons and equipment.”
Plea for hostages
Several countries are evacuating their citizens from Israel as the conflict threatens to escalate. The US State Department said it has “been in conversation” with various airlines to “encourage them to consider resuming travel in and out of Israel” so that people can leave.
Mexico’s foreign ministry said 135 citizens were evacuated on a military flight from Israel on Tuesday evening. Germany said it will evacuate citizens from Israel on Thursday and Friday, and the French government is in contact with Air France to organize a flight Thursday to evacuate French citizens, according to the foreign minister.
There are also rising fears of the Lebanon-based Shia militant faction Hezbollah entering the conflict, potentially opening a second front in the war. The IDF said Tuesday that it has added tens of thousands of additional troops to its northern border with Lebanon in anticipation of an attack by the Iran-backed group.
Three Israeli soldiers were killed in an attack on the border with Lebanon on Monday, according to the IDF.
In a briefing on Wednesday, IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said that Hezbollah in southern Lebanon fired anti-tank missiles and rockets at Israeli positions and soldiers. “There has already been an attempt by Islamic jihad terrorists to infiltrate into Israel – that attempt was successfully thwarted by the IDF, sadly at the cost of the life of a senior officer and two additional soldiers,” he said.
In pictures: The deadly clashes in Israel and Gaza
Rockets were also launched from Syria into Israeli territory, the Israel Defense Forces said Tuesday, adding that they landed in open areas.
Families in Israel are left with little information about their missing loved ones, as Hamas warned it will start executing hostages if strikes on Gaza continue.
Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog on Tuesday strongly urged the international community to pressure Hamas to unconditionally release people taken as hostages.
Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the US has special operators who “are going to help” the Israeli military “with intelligence and planning” for potential operations regarding hostages taken by Hamas.