Israel Prepares Ground Offensive; Biden Decries ‘Sheer Evil’ of Hamas Attacks
10:31 JST, October 11, 2023
JERUSALEM/GAZA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel vowed to escalate its response to an attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas with a ground offensive, while U.S. President Joe Biden pledged support for Israel and issued a warning to anyone who might seek to take advantage of the situation.
Israel carried out air strikes across Gaza overnight into Wednesday, as retaliatory bombing — which Gaza’s health ministry says has killed at least 900 people and wounded 4,600 — continued to flatten neighborhoods in the crowded coastal enclave.
On Saturday, Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip rampaged through parts of southern Israel, in the deadliest Palestinian militant attack in Israel’s history.
Israel’s embassy in Washington said on Tuesday the death toll from the weekend Hamas attacks had surpassed 1,000. Public broadcaster Kan reported the figure had reached 1,200.
The victims were overwhelmingly civilians, gunned down in homes, on streets or at an outdoor dance party. Scores of Israelis and others from abroad were captured and taken to Gaza as hostages, some shown on social media being paraded through the streets.
Hamas militants holding Israeli soldiers and civilians hostage on Monday threatened to execute a captive for each home in Gaza hit without warning, but as night fell on Tuesday there was no indication they had done so.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, speaking to soldiers near the Gaza fence, said: “Hamas wanted a change and it will get one. What was in Gaza will no longer be.”
“We started the offensive from the air, later on we will also come from the ground. We’ve been controlling the area since Day 2 and we are on the offensive. It will only intensify.”
Israel withdrew troops from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, and has kept it under blockade since Hamas seized power there in 2007. The siege it announced on Monday would keep out food and fuel.
On Israel’s northern border, a salvo of rockets was fired from southern Lebanon towards Israel, prompting Israeli shelling in return, three security sources said.
More shells launched from Syrian territory landed in open areas in Israel, prompting Israel to return fire, the military said, further raising fears that the violence could lead to a wider war.
At the White House, Biden told reporters the United States had “enhanced our military force posture in the region to strengthen our deterrence,” including by moving an aircraft carrier strike group and fighter aircraft.
“We stand ready to move in additional assets as needed,” Biden said. “Let me say again to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word: don’t,” said Biden, in an apparent reference to Iran and its proxies in the region.
U.S. officials say they do not have evidence Iran orchestrated the attacks, but point to Iran’s long-term support for Hamas.
Biden called the Hamas attacks “an act of sheer evil” and said Washington was rushing additional military assistance to Israel, including ammunition and interceptors to replenish the Iron Dome aerial defense system. He called for Israel to follow the “law of war” in its response.
Biden also despatched his top diplomat Antony Blinken to Israel, who will depart for the region on Wednesday and meet with Israeli officials to deliver “a message of solidarity and support,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing coalition and opposition leaders were close to forming an emergency unity government.
A meeting between Netanyahu and former Defence Minister Benny Gantz was scheduled for Tuesday but was delayed to Wednesday.
‘NO PLACE IS SAFE’
Israel’s military said its forces, backed by a helicopter and drones, clashed with militants inside Israeli territory late on Tuesday.
Soldiers killed three militants in the incident in Ashkelon, starting a fire in an industrial area close to an oil terminal located just over 10 km (6 miles) from the Gaza Strip that has been shut in the wake of the attacks, it said.
Israeli aircraft struck more than 70 targets overnight in Daraj Tuffah, a district of Gaza City that had been used by Hamas to direct attacks, the military said.
Hamas-affiliated media said strikes hit homes in Gaza City and the southern city of Khan Younis.
A strike on a home in Gaza City’s Sabra neighborhood killed five people, according to a medical official.
Residents appealing for help on social media said many buildings had collapsed, sometimes trapping as many as 50 people inside with rescue workers unable to reach them.
The United Nations said more than 180,000 Gazans had been made homeless, many huddling on streets or in schools.
At the morgue in Gaza’s Khan Younis hospital on Tuesday, bodies lay on the ground on stretchers with names written on their bellies. Medics called for relatives to pick up bodies quickly because there was no more space for the dead.
A municipal building was hit while being used as an emergency shelter. Survivors there spoke of many dead.
“No place is safe in Gaza, as you see they hit everywhere,” said Ala Abu Tair, 35, who had sought shelter there with his family after fleeing Abassan Al-Kabira near the border.
Two members of Hamas’ political office, Jawad Abu Shammala and Zakaria Abu Maamar, were killed in an air strike in Khan Younis, a Hamas official said.
They were the first senior Hamas members killed since Israel began pounding the enclave. Israel said Abu Shammala had led a number of operations targeting Israeli civilians.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Israeli strikes had since Saturday destroyed more than 22,600 residential units and 10 health facilities and damaged 48 schools.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, who denounced the Hamas attacks, said: “International humanitarian law is clear: the obligation to take constant care to spare the civilian population and civilian objects remains applicable throughout the attacks.”
Violence also flared in the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem, where Israeli police said they killed two Palestinians who shot fireworks toward officers on Tuesday night.
In the West Bank, 21 Palestinians have been killed and 130 injured in clashes with Israeli forces since Saturday, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
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