Israel and Hamas exchanged more heavy fire in Gaza on Thursday, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived to express strong sympathy but also urging restraint to safeguard Palestinian civilians.
After Hamas gunmen killed 1,200 Israelis, primarily civilians, and abducted roughly 150 hostages, Israel’s army has pounded Hamas with thousands of strikes ahead of what is largely expected to be a ground invasion of the congested enclave.
In the six days after Hamas launched their historic offensive, the worst in Israeli history, Israel has leveled entire city blocks and demolished thousands of buildings in Gaza, killing over 1,200 Palestinians.
“Every Hamas member is a dead man,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the traumatised nation after forming a wartime government Wednesday, likening Hamas to the Islamic State group and vowing to “crush them and destroy them”.
US President Joe Biden — who has strongly backed Israel and started sending military aid — also cautioned on Wednesday that Israel must, despite “all the anger and frustration … operate by the rules of war”.
Fears have escalated for Gaza’s 2.4 million Palestinians, who are currently facing the fifth war in 15 years in the long-blockaded region, with Israel cutting off water, food, and power supplies.
The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, expressed alarm about the “supercharged cycle of violence and horror.” He demanded that all prisoners be released and the siege be lifted, emphasizing that “civilians must be protected at all times.”
There have been suggestions for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to allow Palestinians to flee ahead of a potential Israeli ground assault, which would result in harsh urban conflict and house-to-house fighting.
Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz vowed Thursday the total siege of Gaza would continue until the hostages are freed.
“Humanitarian aid to Gaza?” he wrote in a statement. “No electric switch will be turned on, no water tap will be opened and no fuel truck will enter until the Israeli abductees are returned home.”
‘All I do is cry’
Israel has activated 300,000 reservists and sent infantry, tanks, and heavy armor to the southern desert areas around Gaza, from whence Hamas began its unprecedented onslaught on October 7.
Since then, Israeli soldiers have swept the southern cities and kibbutz villages, killing 1,500 militants while uncovering horrifying discoveries of significant numbers of dead civilians, including children.
“I would never have been able to imagine .. something like this,” Doron Spielman, an Israeli army spokesman, said at one gated community where more than 100 residents were killed.
“It looks like… an atomic bomb just landed here.”
Netanyahu has said the Hamas onslaught was of a level of “savagery… we have not seen since the Holocaust”.
Israeli outrage has been fuelled by Hamas’s capture of at least 150 hostages — mostly Israelis but also foreign and dual nationals — now being held in Gaza.
“I know he’s out there somewhere,” one of the affected Israelis, Ausa Meir, said of her brother Michael, who is among the captives. “It’s very, very painful.”
Hamas has threatened to kill hostages if Israel bombs Gaza civilian targets without advance warning — deepening the anger and fear in shell-shocked Israel.
“Everybody is impacted in Israel,” said Joana Ouisman, 38, a finance executive. “I’ve been watching TV all day for the past three to four days. All I do is cry.”
‘We must win’
The threat from the north, the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia located in Lebanon, complicates Israel’s current conflict in the south.
Following recent skirmishes with Hezbollah, involving cross-border missiles and shelling, Israel has massed tanks on its northern border.
The US has sent an aircraft carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean to demonstrate its support and has warned Israel’s adversaries not to become involved in the fight.
Iran, Israel’s arch-foe, has long financially and militarily supported Hamas but claims it had no role in Saturday’s attack.
Unrest has also erupted in the occupied West Bank, where marches in sympathy with Gaza have taken place, and 27 Palestinians have been murdered in clashes since Saturday.
For the time being, Netanyahu has put aside his political disagreements and formed an emergency cabinet that includes centrist former defense minister Benny Gantz.
“Israel before anything else,” Gantz wrote in a social media post Wednesday, while the far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir wrote that he “welcomes the unity, now we must win”.