US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday pledged US support for Israel as its military pulverized with airstrikes on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and preparing for a possible ground invasion. As Palestinians tried to stock up on bread and groceries amid dwindling supplies, Israel said entry into Gaza would not be allowed until some 150 hostages taken captive by Hamas during weekend attack were released.
International aid groups warned of a worsening humanitarian crisis after Israel halted deliveries of food, water, fuel and electricity to Gaza's 2.3 million people and prevented supplies from entering from Egypt. War has claimed at least 2,700 lives on both sides.
“Not a single electrical switch will be activated, not a single tap will be turned on, and not a single fuel truck will enter until the Israeli hostages return home,” Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said on social media. .
Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters Thursday that forces “are preparing for a ground maneuver” should political leaders order it. A ground offensive in Gaza where the population is densely packed into a strip of land just 40 kilometers (25 miles) long, would likely result in even greater casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.
As Israel attacks Gaza from the air, Hamas militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel. Amid concerns that fighting could spread to the region, Syrian state media reported that Thursday's Israeli airstrikes hit international airports in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the northern city of Aleppo, knocking them out of service.
Palestinians fleeing the airstrikes in Gaza could be seen running through the streets, carrying their belongings and looking for a safe place. . The number of people who fled their homes reached 340,000 by Wednesday night, about 15% of Gaza's population. Most are crowded into UN-run schools, while others stay with relatives or even strangers who allow them entry.
Lines formed outside bakeries and grocery stores for the few hours they dared to open, as people tried to stock up before the shelves emptied. On Wednesday, Gaza's only power plant ran out of fuel and shut down, leaving only lights powered by scattered private generators.
Hospitals, overwhelmed by a steady stream of wounded and out of supplies, have only a few days' worth of fuel before their power is cut off, aid officials say. The outage has also caused serious water shortages for more than 650,000 people, according to the UN.
"Without electricity, hospitals risk becoming morgues," warned Fabrizio Carboni, regional director of the International Committee of the Red Cross. When the electricity goes out, it puts “newborns in incubators and elderly patients receiving oxygen” at risk. Kidney dialysis stops and x-rays cannot be taken,” he said.
With Israel sealing off the territory, the only way in or out is through the crossing with Egypt at Rafah. Egypt's Foreign Ministry said it has not officially closed Rafah but that airstrikes have prevented it from operating. Egypt has been trying to convince Israel and the United States to allow aid and fuel delivery through Rafah.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “crush” Hamas after militants broke into the south of the country on Saturday and they will massacre hundreds of people, including murders of children in their homes and young people at a music festival. Netanyahu denounced Hamas atrocities, including the beheading of soldiers and the rape of women. His allegations could not be independently confirmed.
Amid grief and demands for revenge among the Israeli public, the government is under intense pressure to overthrow Hamas. instead of continuing to try to suppress it in Gaza.
Four previous conflicts ended with the group still firmly in control of the territory it has ruled since 2007. Israel has mobilized 360,000 reservists, massed additional forces near Gaza and evacuated tens of thousands of residents from nearby communities. A new war cabinet, including a long-time opposition politician, is now leading the fight.
Blinken's visit underscored American support for Israel's retaliation.
“They may be strong enough on their own to defend themselves, but as long as the United States exists, they will never have to,” Blinken said after meeting Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. “We will always be by your side.”
Blinken will meet on Friday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose authority is limited to parts of the occupied West Bank, and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, in a 1967 war. The Palestinians want all three territories for their future state, but there have been no peace talks in more than a decade.
In Gaza, the Israeli military said the overnight strikes targeted Hamas's elite Nukhba forces, including command centers used by fighters who attacked Israel on Saturday, and the home of a senior Hamas naval operative who, He said it was used to store unspecified weapons. Other airstrikes killed commanders of two smaller militant groups, according to media linked to those organizations.
"Right now we are focused on eliminating its senior leaders," Hecht, the military spokesman, said of Hamas. “Not only the military leadership, but also the government leadership, up to (Top Hamas leader Yehia) Sinwar.”
Drone footage filmed by The Associated Press revealed extensive damage in the Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza following overnight airstrikes. Residents picked their way through the rubble as fire and rescue teams searched for survivors.
While Israel has insisted that it is giving warning of its attacks, it is employing a new tactic of leveling entire neighborhoods, rather than just individual buildings.
Hecht said targeting decisions were based on intelligence and that civilians were warned.
Even with the warnings, Palestinians say some cannot escape or have nowhere to go, and that entire families have been crushed under the rubble. In the Gaza city of Beit Lahia, Israeli planes dropped leaflets asking people to leave after strikes devastated the area, residents said.
Jaber Weshah, a 73-year-old human rights activist, said there was no warning when an attack leveled a multi-story building next to his in the Bureij refugee camp early Wednesday. At least 12 people were killed, including a bookseller, his wife and two young daughters and six members of another family, residents said.
"It was hell," Weshah said.
At least 1,000 homes have been razed and 560 have been left uninhabitable due to the attacks, according to the UN
The Palestinian Health Ministry said two Palestinians were killed in the West Bank on Thursday when Israeli settlers shot at a funeral for three people killed in a settler attack the previous day. Footage showed Jewish settlers in their cars swerving toward the funeral procession and blocking the road before stopping and opening fire.
The Health Ministry says more than two dozen Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and two in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem since Saturday, most when police shot at stone-throwing protesters.
The death toll in Gaza rose to more than 1,400, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
The Israeli military said more than 1,300 people, including 222 soldiers, have been killed in Israel, a staggering toll not seen since the weeks-long 1973 war with Egypt and Syria.
Thousands of people have been injured on both sides.
Israel says approximately 1,500 Hamas militants were killed inside Israel and that hundreds of those killed inside Gaza are Hamas members.