By Jeff Mason, Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi
WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday warned Iran against getting involved in Israel’s conflict with Hamas amid fears of a wider regional conflict, while Israeli leaders formed an emergency war cabinet to present a united front.
Israeli jets have pounded the Gaza Strip for days in retribution for a weekend attack by Palestinian Hamas militants who breached the border fence enclosing Gaza and rampaged through towns and villages, killing 1,200 people, injuring over 2,700, and taking scores of hostages, the Israeli military said.
Biden despatched his top diplomat, Antony Blinken, to the Middle East to show Washington’s enduring support for Israel, seek to secure the release of captives, including Americans, and prevent a wider war from erupting.
Speaking to a roundtable of Jewish community leaders in Washington, Biden said his deployment of military ships and aircraft closer to Israel should be seen as a signal to Iran, which backs Islamist groups Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“We made it clear to the Iranians: Be careful,” Biden said.
Iran likely knew Hamas militants were planning “operations against Israel” but initial U.S. intelligence reports showed that some Iranian leaders were surprised by the group’s unprecedented attack from Gaza, U.S. sources said on Wednesday.
Blinken was expected to arrive in Israel on Thursday and will also visit Jordan. He was not scheduled to visit the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where he ordinarily meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
HAMAS ‘WILL CEASE TO EXIST,’ ISRAELI DEFENSE CHIEF SAYS
Hamas-affiliated media said on Wednesday seven people were killed by Israeli air strikes on homes in Khan Younis in southern Gaza.
Gaza’s Health Ministry says retributive bombings by Israeli fighter jets have killed 1,100 people and wounded more than 5,000. Some 535 residential buildings have been destroyed leaving around 250,000 homeless, Hamas officials said.
Most of the displaced were in U.N.-designated shelters, others huddling in shattered streets.
Israel has deployed formations of tanks and armored vehicles near Gaza in possible preparation for a ground offensive into the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave.
Israel withdrew Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. An Israeli blockade since Hamas seized power in the enclave in 2007 has created conditions which Palestinians say are intolerable.
“We will wipe this thing called Hamas, ISIS-Gaza, off the face of the earth,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Wednesday, likening Hamas to the Islamic State group. “It will cease to exist.”
Biden said he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again on Wednesday, their fourth conversation in recent days, and told him Israel should follow the rules of war in its response against Hamas.
Washington said it was talking with Israel and Egypt about safe passage for civilians from Gaza, with food in short supply.
Asked if Washington had advocated for Israel to exercise restraint in its response, Blinken said before departing that Israel respects international law and makes efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
“We know that Israel will take all of the precautions that it can, just as we would, and again that’s what separates us from Hamas and terrorist groups that engage in the most heinous kind of activities,” Blinken said.
‘WE ARE ALL SOLDIERS OF ISRAEL’
Israel’s leaders on Wednesday formed a unity government, promising to put bitter political divisions aside to focus on the fight against Hamas.
Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a centrist opposition leader, spoke live on Israeli television alongside Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gallant after forming a war cabinet focused entirely on the conflict.
“Our partnership is not political, it is a shared fate,” said Gantz. “At this time we are all the soldiers of Israel.”
Netanyahu said the people of Israel and its leadership were united. “We have put aside all differences because the fate of our state is on the line,” he said.
Gantz’s National Unity Party, which has fiercely opposed judicial reforms proposed by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, said it will not promote any unrelated policy or laws while the fighting goes on.
Israel has put Gaza under “total siege” to stop food and fuel reaching the enclave of 2.3 million people, many poor and dependent on aid. Hamas media said on Wednesday electricity went out after the only power station stopped working.
With Palestinian rescue workers overwhelmed, others in the crowded coastal strip searched for bodies in the rubble.
“I was sleeping here when the house collapsed on top of me,” one man cried as he and others used flashlights on the stairs of a building hit by missiles to find anyone trapped.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Humeyra Pamuk, Jarrett Renshaw, Rami Ayyub and Simon Lewis in Washington, Maayan Lubell and Emily Rose in Jerusalem, and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Howard Goller)