By NAJIB JOBAIN, KAREEM CHEHAYEB and AMY TEIBEL (Associated Press)
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops and tanks briefly raided northern Gaza overnight, the military said Thursday, engaging with Hamas terrorists and targeting anti-tank weapons in order to “prepare the battlefield” before an expected ground invasion.
The raid came after after more than two weeks of devastating airstrikes in the small, densely-populated territory — with more than 250 in the past 24 hours — and as the U.N. and other world leaders warn of a dire humanitarian crisis getting worse.
Israel has imposed a suffocating siege on Gaza since Hamas’ bloody rampage and hostage-taking across southern Israel ignited the war. Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada and the European Union. Residents are running out of food, water and medicine, and U.N. workers have barely any fuel left to support their relief missions across Gaza, where more than 1 million Palestinians have been displaced.
The rising death toll in Gaza is unprecedented in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Thursday more than 7,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict, a figure that could not be independently verified. Even greater loss of life could come if Israel launches a ground offensive aimed at crushing Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and survived four previous wars with Israel.
Israeli airstrikes in the southern city of Khan Younis leveled more than eight homes belonging to an extended family, killing at least 15 people. Ambulances raced to the scene as dust from the collapsing buildings hung in the air.
The blast zone was a chaotic wasteland of crumbled concrete and twisted metal. Rescuers carried wounded people covered in gray dust. The body of a boy was dug out from beneath a concrete slab, where his head had come to rest next to the foot of another person entombed in the wreckage.
The Israeli military says it only strikes militant targets and accuses Hamas of operating among civilians in an attempt to protect its fighters. Palestinian militants have thousands of rockets into Israel since the war began. One struck a residential building in the central city of Petah Tikva, without wounding anyone.
Hamas’ military wing said Thursday that Israeli bombardment has so far killed about 50 of the at least 224 hostages the terrorists abducted during its Oct. 7 assault. There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials, who have denied previous, similar claims.
The conflict has threatened to ignite a wider war across the region.
Hezbollah, an Iranian-funded ally of Hamas operating out of Lebanon, has repeatedly traded fire with Israel along the border. Israel has carried out airstrikes in Lebanon, Syria and even the occupied West Bank. The United States has sent to the region two aircraft carrier strike groups with a number of ships, along with additional fighter jets and other weaponry and personnel.
Israel has vowed to crush Hamas’ capacity to govern Gaza or threaten Israel again, while also saying it doesn’t want to reoccupy the territory from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005. That could prove a daunting challenge, since Hamas is deeply rooted in Gaza, with political and charity organizations as well as a formidable armed wing.
Benny Gantz, a retired general and a member of Israel’s war Cabinet, said any possible ground offensive would be only “one stage in a long-term process that includes security, political and social aspects that will take years.”
“The campaign will soon ramp up with greater force,” he added.
During the overnight raid, soldiers killed fighters and destroyed militant infrastructure and anti-tank missile launching positions, the military said. It said no Israelis were wounded. There was no immediate confirmation of any Palestinian casualties.
Israeli Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a military spokesman, said the limited incursion was “part of our preparations for the next stages of the war.”
Israel also said it had also carried out around 250 airstrikes across Gaza in the last 24 hours, targeting tunnel shafts, rocket launchers and other militant infrastructure. Its reported targeting could not be independently verified.
The Gaza Health Ministry says more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war in less than three weeks, a figure that includes the disputed toll from an explosion at a hospital. That is more than three times the number of Palestinians killed in the six-week-long Gaza war in 2014. The ministry’s toll includes more than 2,900 minors and more than 1,500 women.
On Wednesday, the wife, son, daughter and grandson of Wael Dahdouh, a veteran Al-Jazeera correspondent in Gaza, were killed in an Israeli strike. Dahdouh and other mourners attended the funerals on Thursday wearing the blue flak jackets used by reporters in the Palestinian territories.
The fighting has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel, mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack, according to the Israeli government.
The warning by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, over depleting fuel supplies raised alarm that the humanitarian crisis could quickly worsen. Israel is still barring deliveries of fuel — needed to power generators — saying it believes Hamas will take it for military use.
About 1.4 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have fled their homes, with nearly half of them crowded into U.N. shelters. Hundreds of thousands remain in northern Gaza, despite Israel ordering them to evacuate to the south, saying those who remain might be considered “accomplices” of Hamas.
In recent days, Israel has let more than 70 trucks with aid enter from Egypt, which aid workers say is insufficient and only a tiny fraction of what is needed.
“This is … a drop in the ocean,” said William Schomburg, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza. “We are trying to establish a pipeline.”
More than half of Gaza’s primary health care facilities and roughly a third of its hospitals have stopped functioning, the World Health Organization said.
At Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital, the lack of medicine and clean water have led to “alarming” infection rates, the group Doctors Without Borders said. Amputations are often required to prevent infection from spreading in the wounded, it said.
Nine Arab countries – including key U.S. allies and nations that have signed peace or normalization deals with Israel — issued a joint statement Thursday calling for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the targeting and death of civilians.
“The right to self defense by the United Nations Charter does not justify blatant violations of humanitarian and international law,“ said the statement, signed by Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Morocco.
Chehayeb reported from Beirut and Teibel from Jerusalem. Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Jack Jeffery in Cairo and Brian Melley in London contributed to this report.