Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza Worsens as Israel Prepares a Possible Invasion

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Six days of Israeli airstrikes have left more than 300,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip homeless, with two million residents facing critical shortages of food, water and fuel, while Israeli troops prepared on Thursday for a possible ground invasion after Hamas’s deadly weekend assault.

Retaliating for the bloodiest attack on Israel in 50 years, Israel is pummeling Gaza with a ferocity not seen in past conflicts and has cut off vital supplies to the coastal territory. Health officials in Gaza, home to two million people, said the Israeli bombardment had killed more than 1,500 people and injured over 6,600 others.

Israel’s military says that it is hitting places used by Hamas, which controls Gaza, including mosques, houses and other outwardly civilian locations. Gazans say the airstrikes are doing indiscriminate damage to civilians and civilian sites, and independent observers have confirmed that schools and ambulances have been destroyed.

The retaliatory strikes began after Hamas terrorists broke through the border fence with Israel on Saturday morning and attacked towns, kibbutzim and a military base, killing more than 1,200 people, most of them civilians, wounding about 3,000 others and kidnapping about 150 hostages, the Israeli government said.

Gaza’s only power plant stopped generating electricity on Wednesday for lack of fuel, shutting down everything from lights to refrigerators, and much of the region lacks running water. Hospitals are overwhelmed with wounded patients and running out of vital supplies; fuel for generators and vehicles is dwindling rapidly; food and water are growing scarce; and it is not clear when humanitarian aid might be allowed in.

“We are facing a huge disaster,” Adnan Abu Hasna, an official with the United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said by phone from Gaza. He described conditions as “absolutely horrible.”

With the United States stepping up its weapons shipments to Israel, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a military base in Tel Aviv to reinforce support for Israel “as long as America exists.”

“I come before you not only as the U.S. secretary of state, but also as a Jew,” said Mr. Blinken, whose stepfather, Samuel Pisar, survived Nazi concentration camps. “I understand on a personal level the harrowing echoes that Hamas’s massacres carry for Israeli Jews and for Jews everywhere.”

He added, “This is, this must be, a moment for moral clarity.”

But Mr. Blinken also suggested the need for caution in Israel’s retaliation. “It’s important to take every possible precaution to prevent harming civilians,” he said.

Mr. Netanyahu has said that Hamas shot children in the head, burned people alive, raped women and decapitated soldiers.

In a videoconference call to NATO headquarters, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Israel showed a video of the Hamas attacks that Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, called “horrific.”Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III later added, “We are appalled by the emerging scope of the atrocities committed by the terrorists of Hamas.”

The White House said 27 U.S. citizens were killed in the Hamas attack, and the State Department said there were 500 to 600 Americans living or visiting in Gaza whose safety it was trying to guarantee.

In a televised speech, the Hamas spokesman Abu Ubaida said the group had achieved more than it had hoped for in its attack, which he said involved a 3,000-person battalion and a 1,500-person backup force. He confirmed reports that Hamas had successfully duped Israeli intelligence into believing that it did not want a major conflict.

“We are telling the enemy, if you dare enter Gaza, we will destroy your army,” he said.

Israel has called up 360,000 reservists and is building up a large force on the border with Gaza — as well as a smaller one near the northern border with Lebanon — amid widespread speculation that it will invade the Hamas-held territory, which it last did in 2014.

The military “is preparing multiple operational contingency plans” for what it expects will be a protracted war, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, told reporters. “We’re waiting to see what our political leadership decides about a potential ground war. This has not been decided yet.”

He said Israeli warplanes were concentrating on striking targets belonging to an elite Hamas unit known as the Nukhba, which is believed to have led the attack on Israel. “We plan to get every one of those people,” he said.

Though Israeli forces retook all of the area overrun by the incursion within a few days, Hamas fighters were still trying to enter Israel, including by sea, Colonel Hecht said, adding that two were captured and five were killed on Wednesday.

In Gaza, 338,000 people have been displaced, the United Nations said, with most of them taking shelter in U.N. schools. Egypt, which with Israel has enforced a blockade of Gaza for 16 years, has refused to allow people fleeing the bombardment to enter its territory. U.S. officials said Biden administration was talking with Israel and Egypt about safe passage for civilians to leave and relief supplies to enter.

Israeli warplanes have bombed 88 educational facilities in Gaza, including 18 U.N. schools, two of which were being used to shelter civilians, said Stéphane Dujarric, a U.N. spokesman.

Several medical and emergency workers have been killed in Israeli strikes in Gaza since Saturday, including four Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance drivers and paramedics who were killed on Wednesday, the group said.

Israel’s siege of Gaza, cutting off water, food and medical supplies, is “not acceptable,” Fabrizio Carboni, the Middle East director of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said at a news briefing. He added, “We need a safe humanitarian space,”

A steady stream of broken and lifeless bodies was flowing into Gaza’s largest medical center, Al Shifa Hospital. Ambulances, yellow cabs and private vehicles screeched to a halt at the entrance to deliver the wounded. Adults arrived carrying injured children or pushing people on stretchers or wheelchairs.

Inside, bloodied patients sat or lay on the tile floor, waiting for treatment. Outside, bodies wrapped in white cloth lined the sidewalk waiting to be identified or collected by loved ones.

Many of the limestone villas and high-rise buildings surrounding the hospital in its affluent Gaza City neighborhood of Al Rimal have been reduced to rubble in the bombing. The Israeli military says the neighborhood is a financial hub for Hamas.

Hamas is backed by Iran, which is eager to derail efforts to normalize relations between its two regional archenemies, Saudi Arabia and Israel. U.S. officials say that, so far, they have seen no evidence of Iranian involvement in the Hamas attack.

But on Thursday, the United States and Qatar agreed to refreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue, preventing Tehran from spending it. The Biden administration agreed in August to release the money for Iran to spend on humanitarian needs in exchange for the release of Americans held prisoner in Iran.

The Hamas attack on Saturday came as a shocking setback for Israel, with its powerful military and renowned intelligence services. The security apparatus failed to anticipate the incursion, failed to see that its border defenses could be defeated easily and failed at first to grasp the breadth of the assault and coordinate a response. People pleading for help waited hours for police officers or troops to arrive.

While Israelis have largely shown solidarity in the aftermath, Israeli politicians have begun to face a backlash. On Wednesday, Idit Silman, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party who serves as environmental minister, faced a heckling crowd while she visited injured people at a hospital.

“You are responsible! Go home,” yelled one person, according to video published by Ynet, a popular Israeli news site.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev was chased to her car and cursed at Thursday when she tried to visit the injured at a hospital, and security guards restrained a young man who hurled objects at her car. She has been widely criticized for not arranging emergency transportation for troops called to duty on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when most public transportation shuts down.

Nir Barkat, the economy minister, also confronted a displeased crowd at a hospital, when he met with the wounded in Tel Aviv, according to video shared on social media.

In an interview with Channel 14 in Israel, a man named Shirel Chogeg grew increasingly irate as he described wounds his sister sustained when Hama gunmen overran the Kfar Azza kibbutz and set fire to her family’s safe room.

“This terrible nightmare is registered on the names of all the Knesset members and on the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, these reckless people who don’t even take responsibility,” he said.

Herzi Halevi, the Israeli military chief of staff, acknowledged on Thursday that the military had not lived up to its responsibilities. “We will learn; we will investigate,” he said, “But now is the time for war.”

Edward Wong reported from Tel Aviv, and Hiba Yazbek from Jerusalem. Reporting was contributed by Samar Abu Elouf from Gaza City; Steven Erlanger, Raja Abdulrahim, Aaron Boxerman and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem; Nicholas Casey from Madrid; Victoria Kim from Seoul; Farnaz Fassihi and Nadav Gavrielov from New York; Lara Jakes from Brussels; Monika Pronczuk from London; and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon.



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