Israel Strikes Neighborhood After Neighborhood in Sealed-off Gaza as War Appears Set to Escalate

Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed building after Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians in the sealed-off Gaza Strip scrambled to find safety Wednesday, as Israel hammered neighborhood after neighborhood in the tiny coastal enclave in retaliation for the deadly mass incursion by by Hamas militants and vowed an even more punishing escalation.

Airstrikes smashed entire city blocks to rubble, leaving unknown numbers of bodies beneath mounds of debris, and continued even as Hamas militants hold dozens of captives seized during their shocking attack into Israel over the weekend.

Israel has vowed an unprecedented offensive against the Islamic militant group ruling Gaza after its fighters broke through the border fence and stormed into the country’s south, gunning down hundreds of Israelis in their homes, on the streets and at an outdoor music festival. They dragged an estimated 150 people – soldiers, men, women, children and the elderly – into captivity in Gaza.

As Palestinians crowded into U.N. schools and a shrinking number of safe neighborhoods, humanitarian groups pleaded for the creation of corridors to get aid into Gaza, warning that hospitals overwhelmed with wounded people were running out of supplies.

“There is no safe place in Gaza right now,” journalist Hasan Jabar said after three Palestinian journalists were killed in the bombardment of a downtown neighborhood home to government ministries, media offices and hotels. “I am genuinely afraid for my life.”

Israel has stopped entry of food, fuel and medicine into Gaza, and the sole remaining access from Egypt was shut down Tuesday after airstrikes hit near the border crossing.

The war, which has already claimed at least 2,100 lives on both sides, is expected to escalate.

Israel appears increasingly likely to launch a ground offensive into Gaza — a 40-kilometer-long (25-mile) strip of land wedged among Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians and has been governed by Hamas since 2007.

As exchanges of fire over Israel’s northern borders with militants in Lebanon and Syria pointed to the risk of an expanded regional conflict. U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned other countries and armed groups against entering the conflict. The U.S. is already rushing munitions and military equipment to Israel and has deployed a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean as deterrence.

“We will not allow a reality in which Israeli children are murdered,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a meeting with soldiers near the southern border on Tuesday. “I have removed every restriction — we will eliminate anyone who fights us, and use every measure at our disposal.”

Israel stepped up its offensive on Tuesday, expanding the mobilization of reservists to 360,000. Israel’s military said it had regained effective control over areas Hamas attacked in its south and along the Gaza border.

In a new tactic, Israel is warning civilians to evacuate neighborhood after neighborhood, and then inflicting devastation, in what could be a prelude to a ground offensive. Fighter jets returned multiple times to the al-Furqan neighborhood, striking 450 targets in 24 hours, the Israeli military said.

One blast hit Gaza City’s seaport, setting fishing boats aflame.

Rescue officials in Gaza said “large numbers” of people were still trapped under the remnants of leveled buildings, with rescue equipment and ambulances unable to reach the area.

Palestinian Civil Defense forces pulled Abdullah Musleh out of his basement together with 30 others after their apartment building was flattened.

“I sell toys, not missiles,’’ the 46-year-old said, weeping. “I want to leave Gaza. Why do I have to stay here? I lost my home and my job.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Hamas fired barrages of rockets toward the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. There were no immediate reports of casualties. On Tuesday night, a group of militants entered an industrial zone in Ashkelon, sparking a gunbattle with Israeli troops, the military said. Three militants were killed, and troops were searching the area for others.

Four previous rounds of Israel-Hamas fighting between 2008 and 2021 all ended inconclusively, with Hamas battered but still in control. This time, Israel’s government is under intense pressure from the public to topple Hamas, a goal considered unachievable in the past because it would require a reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, at least temporarily.

“The objective is for this war to end very differently from all of the previous rounds. There has to be a clear victory,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel. “Whatever has to be done to fundamentally change the situation will have to be done,” he said.

Hamas officials have said they planned for all possibilities, including a punishing Israeli escalation. Desperation has grown among Palestinians, many of whom see nothing to lose under unending Israeli military occupation and increasing settlements in the West Bank, a 16-year-long blockade in Gaza and what they see as the world’s apathy.

Hamas may have been counting on the fight to spread to the occupied West Bank and possibly for Lebanon’s Hezbollah to open a front in the north.

Days of clashes between rock-throwing Palestinians and Israeli forces in the West Bank have left 15 Palestinians dead, but Israel has clamped down heavily on the territory, preventing movement between communities. The violence also spread into east Jerusalem, where Israeli police said they killed two Palestinians who hurled stones at police late Tuesday.

The Israeli military said more than 1,200 people, including 155 soldiers, have been killed in Israel, a staggering toll unseen since the 1973 war with Egypt and Syria, which lasted weeks. In Gaza, 950 people have been killed, including 260 children and 230 women, according to authorities there; Israel says hundreds of Hamas fighters are among them. Thousands have been wounded on both sides.

The bodies of roughly 1,500 Hamas militants were found on Israeli territory, the military said. It wasn’t clear whether those numbers overlapped with deaths reported by Palestinian authorities.

Biden said Tuesday at least 14 U.S. citizens were killed in Hamas’ attack and that Americans are among those being held hostage in Gaza. In a telvised address, Biden coupled his unflinching defense of Israel with only a glancing reference to the suffering of Palestinians civilians.

In an apparent warning to Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, which support Hamas, Biden said: “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word: Don’t.”

The State Department announced that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would travel in the coming days to Israel to deliver a message of solidarity and support.

Hamas responded to Biden, saying his administration should “review its biased position” and “move away from the policy of double standards” over what it said was the Palestinians’ right to defend themselves against Israeli occupation.

In Gaza, more than 250,000 people have fled their homes, the U.N. said, the most since a 2014 air and ground offensive by Israel uprooted about 400,000. The vast majority are sheltering in schools run by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. Damage to three water and sanitation sites have cut off services to 400,000 people, the U.N. said.

Tens of thousands of people in southern Israel have been evacuated since Sunday.

The U.N.’s World Health Organization said that supplies it had pre-positioned for seven hospitals in Gaza have already run out amid the flood of wounded. The head of the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said surgical equipment, antibiotics, fuel and other supplies were running out at two hospitals it runs in Gaza.