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Israel readies for Gaza mission as death toll mounts

Israel readies for Gaza mission as death toll mounts

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The death toll in Israel has reached 1,200 as the country masses tens of thousands of soldiers on the border with Gaza in response to Hamas’s deadly attack at the weekend.

The Israel Defense Forces said the number of fatalities would continue to rise with the discovery of further bodies in communities where Hamas killed civilians after its fighters breached the Gaza border.

Palestinian health authorities say 950 people have been killed by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza since Saturday’s incursion.

Israel has mobilised 360,000 reservists as it prepares for a widely expected ground operation in Gaza, from which it withdrew in 2005 and which Hamas has controlled since 2007.

“We have sent our infantry, armoured soldiers, our artillery corps and many other soldiers from the reserves,” said Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesperson.

He added: “They are now close to the Gaza Strip, getting ready to execute the mission that they have been given . . . to make sure that Hamas at the end of this war won’t have any military capabilities by which they can threaten or kill Israeli civilians.”

The combined death toll reported by Israelis and Palestinians now surpasses 2,000, not including the bodies of 1,500 Hamas fighters that Israel says it has retrieved.

In a White House speech on Tuesday, US president Joe Biden said Israel had both the “right” and a “duty” to respond to the Hamas attack, which he described as “sheer evil”. He added that at least 14 Americans had been killed, vowing that the US would “stand with Israel”.

The first cargo plane carrying “advanced armaments” from the US “designed to facilitate significant military operations” landed at Nevatim Airbase in southern Israel on Tuesday night, the Israeli army said.

The US is sending ammunition and interceptors to replenish the Iron Dome air defence system that Israel relies on to neutralise rocket attacks.

It has also moved a naval carrier strike group, including its largest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, from near Italy to the eastern Mediterranean to deter the Iran-backed Hizbollah militant group in Lebanon, and carry out surveillance in support of Israel.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Biden in a phone call on Tuesday night that Hamas’s atrocities surpassed those of Isis and that Israel was at the beginning of “a powerful and prolonged campaign”.

Netanyahu has been seeking to form an emergency government of national unity, but opposition figures have called for him to drop his far-right coalition partners.

Conricus added that the “dozens” of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza included many people with dual nationalities, including US, UK, French, German and Ukrainian passport holders.

More Israelis were killed in the weekend’s assault than in the five years of the second intifada, a cycle of violence that began in 2000 and included bus bombings, rocket attacks and shootings.

A large but still uncounted number of bodies was discovered on Tuesday in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz that abuts the border with the Gaza Strip and was among the last Israeli locations to be secured. The Israeli military described the site as a “massacre”.

Map showing location of Kfar Aza kibbutz near the border with Gaza

Israel said it had hit more than 2,300 “Hamas targets” in the blockaded territory, which is home to 2.3mn people, while more than 4,500 rockets had been fired from Gaza.

Palestinian health authorities said 5,000 people in Gaza were wounded over the past four days, while Conricus said 2,700 Israelis had been wounded in the weekend’s attack.

Israel-Palestinian conflict

The UN estimates that nearly 300,000 Palestinians have been displaced within Gaza, with many rushing to UN-run schools and refugee camps to seek shelter from Israeli bombardment. The UN will ask donors for $200mn in emergency funding to house and feed the internally displaced, a western diplomat said.

Netanyahu has suggested that civilians “leave” the 40-km strip, stoking concern in neighbouring Egypt. The US is discussing safe passage for civilians with its regional allies, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday, without providing details.

Egypt is unwilling to fully reopen the Rafah crossing, the only exit out of Gaza after Hamas destroyed parts of Erez, the checkpoint into Israel, the western diplomat said. The Israeli air force struck an area near Rafah on Tuesday. The UN will try to set up a hub for refugees near Rafah while trying to negotiate a humanitarian corridor, the diplomat said.