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The Israeli military bombarded more than 200 targets in the Gaza Strip overnight and said it had secured its breached border barrier with the enclave, three days after an unprecedented incursion by Hamas triggered the worst war on the country’s territory for decades.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes, according to the UN, as Israel has struck Gaza from the sea and the air in response to the assault by the militant group at the weekend, which killed hundreds.
The Israel Defense Forces said its targets included what it said was a Hamas operational command centre in a mosque, an entry point for a tunnel used by militants and other “operational infrastructure” inside a second mosque.
The Financial Times could not independently confirm the claims. Israel accuses the Palestinian group, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, of embedding military infrastructure in civilian areas and religious sites.
The IDF said the bodies of 1,500 Hamas militants had been found in Israeli territory and the area near the border with Gaza was now “more or less secure”.
The UN also warned it expected that “a severe shortage of already scarce drinkable water” would affect more than 610,000 people in the territory, which Israeli authorities have cut off from water and electricity as part of a “complete siege”.
A military official also said that Palestinian civilians should “get out” of Gaza if they could via the Rafah border crossing into Egypt. More than 2mn people live in Gaza, whose borders Israel and Egypt tightly control.
“First of all, I’m aware that the Rafah crossing is still open,” Richard Hecht, an IDF spokesperson, told journalists in a news briefing on Tuesday. “Anyone that can get out I would advise him if he can to get out.” The Israeli military later issued a clarification that while the Rafah crossing had been open on Monday, it was now closed.
Israel said it had fully deployed 35 military battalions and four divisions and was “building an infrastructure for future operations”, ahead of a widely expected ground operation in Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech on Monday evening that Hamas had made a “mistake of historic proportions” in carrying out Saturday’s attack on Israel, when its fighters broke through Israel’s border barriers and entered Israeli towns and kibbutzes, killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers and abducting dozens.
“We will exact a price that will be remembered by them and Israel’s other enemies for decades to come,” he said.
He also called on opposition leaders to agree to join a unity government “without preconditions”. Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity party, said on Sunday that he would be prepared to form a “war cabinet” to oversee the war efforts in Gaza and other areas of conflict”.
More than 900 Israelis have now been killed, with dozens more held hostage in Gaza. Palestinian officials said on Monday evening that at least 687 people had been killed in Gaza.
According to UNRWA, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, the Israeli bombardment has displaced more than 187,000 people in Gaza.
The war has also raised concerns of a broader regional escalation, including in the north, where Israel faces Lebanon-based militant group Hizbollah, which is backed by Iran. The US has deployed a naval battle group in the Mediterranean nearby.
Hizbollah said on Monday that it had fired rockets and mortars on two Israeli military posts and that three of its fighters had been killed after crossing the border. Israel said one of its soldiers was killed during an earlier cross-border raid.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday it was “mistaken” to link his regime to Hamas’s attack on Israel.
But he said the assault had inflicted an “irreparable defeat” to Israel’s military and intelligence apparatus that “cannot be easily repaired”.
The Hamas incursion has prompted shock and soul-searching in Israel over the security lapses. The IDF said on Tuesday morning that it was “still counting the bodies” from an attack on revellers at a party near the border, where about 250 had been killed.
Additional reporting by James Shotter in Jerusalem