Israel pounds Gaza as death tolls on both sides rise


Israel pounds Gaza as death tolls on both sides rise

The death toll from five days of ferocious fighting between Hamas and Israel rose sharply overnight as Israel kept up its bombardment of Gaza Wednesday after recovering the dead from the last communities near the border where Palestinian militants had been holed up.

In Israel, the death toll from Saturday’s shock cross-border assault by Hamas militants rose to 1,200, making it the deadliest attack in the country’s 75-year history, while Gaza officials reported more than 900 people killed as Israel pounded the territory with air strikes.

Hamas said two of its top officials had been killed, while Israel’s military said the bodies of roughly 1,500 Hamas infiltrators had been found.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Israel’s military response to Saturday’s attack is only the start of a sustained war to destroy the Islamist group and “change the Middle East”.

Fears of a regional conflagration have surged ahead of an expected Israeli ground incursion into Gaza.

At least 30 people were killed and hundreds wounded as Israel pounded the Gaza Strip with hundreds of air strikes overnight, a Hamas government official said Wednesday.

The strikes destroyed several buildings of the Hamas-linked Islamic University in Gaza City, a university official said.

The Israeli military confirmed it had hit dozens of Hamas targets during the night.

It said fighter jets destroyed “advanced detection systems” that Hamas used to spot military aircraft.

They also hit 80 Hamas targets in the Beit Hanoun area of the northeastern Gaza Strip, including two bank branches used by the Islamist group to “fund terrorism” in the enclave, the military said.

In response to Saturday’s attack, Israel imposed a “total siege” on Gaza, suspending supplies of food, water, electricity and fuel to the already blockaded enclave.

Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, is threatening to execute hostages kidnapped in Israel, including young people captured during a music festival where around 270 died.

Israel has been left reeling by Hamas’s unprecedented ground, air and sea assault, likening it to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

In announcing Israel’s latest death toll on Wednesday morning, army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the figure was rising not because of the ongoing fighting, but because “we are discovering bodies of dead Israelis in the various communities that Hamas infiltrated and where they conducted their massacres”.

During Saturday’s attack, Hamas gunmen killed more than 100 people in the kibbutz of Beeri alone, said Moti Bukjin, a volunteer with the charity Zaka.

US President Joe Biden condemned the Hamas attacks as “sheer evil”, and Netanyahu said the militants committed “savagery never seen since the Holocaust”, including the beheading of soldiers.

Condemnation from Western leaders contrasted with some pro-Palestinian demonstrations in support of “resistance” to Israel.

“My entire life, I have seen Israel kill us, confiscate our lands and arrest our children,” said Farah al-Saadi, 52, a coffee vendor from Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank who praised the Hamas assault.

The Israeli army has called up 300,000 reservists and massed tanks and other heavy armour both near Gaza and on the northern border with Lebanon.

The military said its forces had dislodged holdout Hamas fighters from more than a dozen communities near the border and were largely back in control.

But late Tuesday, in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, troops backed by helicopters and drones exchanged fire with several militants, leaving three fighters dead, the army said.

“Around 1,500 bodies of Hamas (fighters) have been found in Israel around the Gaza Strip,” army spokesman Richard Hecht said earlier.

In a speech on Tuesday, Biden confirmed at least 14 Americans were killed, and others were missing.

The US has sent an aircraft carrier and other warships to the eastern Mediterranean as part of efforts to deter any expansion of the conflict, and is also providing other assistance, including sharing intelligence with Israel.

Relatives of Americans believed held in Gaza called on the Biden administration to bring them home safely.

Many other nations have reported citizens killed, abducted or missing, including Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Ireland, Mexico, Nepal, Panama, Paraguay, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Ukraine.

On Monday, Hamas warned it would start killing its hostages every time Israel launches a strike on a civilian target in Gaza without warning. French President Emmanuel Macron called the threat “unacceptable blackmail.”

Israeli munitions have continued to hammer Gaza, a densely populated territory of about 2.3 million people.

Hamas said the strikes killed two of its senior figures: Zakaria Muammar led its economics section, and Jawad Abu Shamala coordinated ties with other Palestinian factions.

Eight Palestinian journalists have also been killed in the strikes, according to media unions and officials.

The United Nations said more than 263,000 people had been displaced inside Gaza, most taking shelter in UN schools.

White smoke billowed from among fishing boats after an air strike on Gaza’s port, and in Jerusalem the deserted streets were targeted by Hamas rocket fire.

“Israeli people they are scared of the Arabs and the Arabs are scared of the Jews… everybody is scared of each other,” said Ahmed Karkash, a shopkeeper in the Old City.

In Gaza City, streets are clogged with rubble and littered with shards of glass.

Mazen Mohammad and his family slept on the ground floor of their apartment block, huddling together as explosions rang out around them.

What they woke up to the next day was unrecognisable.

“We felt like we were in a ghost town, as if we were the only survivors,” Mohammad, 38, told AFP.

After Israel imposed a total siege on Gaza, European Union foreign ministers called for humanitarian corridors for those trying to flee.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk said such sieges are prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Medical supplies, including oxygen, were running low at Gaza’s overwhelmed Al-Shifa hospital, said Mohammed Ghonim, a doctor in the emergency room.

Soldiers who were on guard duty along the hi-tech security barrier around Gaza recounted how Hamas’s attack began with an effort to cripple observation cameras and communications.

“They took us by surprise and we weren’t ready for it,” a lookout soldier said in testimony posted on Instagram.

Israel faced the threat of a multi-front war after three days of clashes with militants on the northern border with Lebanon.

For the first time since the Hamas attack, there was an exchange of fire between Israel and forces in Syria, after Israel’s military said munitions were fired towards the Golan Heights it has occupied since 1967.

On Tuesday, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades claimed a fresh salvo of rocket fire from Lebanon towards Israel, the Israeli army said, adding it retaliated with artillery fire.

“It’s like a state of war,” said Yaakov Regev, sipping coffee at a petrol station in northern Israel, a few kilometres (couple of miles) from the Lebanon border.

Unrest has also surged in the West Bank, where 15 Palestinians have been killed since Saturday.

Netanyahu, the veteran leader at the helm of Israel’s hard-right coalition, has called for an “emergency government of national unity” after his administration’s proposal for judicial reforms split the nation.


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