By Jeff Mason, Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi
WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israel bombed Gaza overnight, saying it had targeted an elite Hamas unit that led the deadly weekend attacks, while the U.S. Secretary of State headed to the Middle East to show solidarity with Israel and meet Arab leaders including Palestinians.
Israel has unleashed the most powerful bombing campaign in the 75-year history of its conflict with the Palestinians, vowing to annihilate the Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip in retribution for the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
Hundreds of Hamas gunmen poured across the barrier fence and rampaged through Israeli towns on Saturday, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians gunned down in their homes or on the streets. They carried scores of hostages back to Gaza.
Israel has put the enclave, home to 2.3 million people, under total siege and has so far killed around 1,200 people in a bombing campaign that has obliterated entire neighbourhoods.
It has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists and formed a unity war cabinet, in preparation for what could be a ground assault on Gaza.
No decision on a ground assault had been made “but we’re preparing for it,” military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hecht said early on Thursday.
The latest strikes overnight were focused on Hamas’s “Nukhba Force”, which spearheaded Saturday’s attacks, Hecht told reporters. Palestinian gunmen were still trying to infiltrate Israel by sea and the military was still working to secure the Gaza fence, Hecht said.
Hamas media said 15 Palestinians had been killed and several wounded in the latest Israeli air strikes. Eyewitnesses reported Israeli aircraft heavily bombarding Gaza city and Gazan authorities also reported an air strike on the Jabalia refuge camp in northern Gaza.
Gaza hospitals have been overrun with wounded and dead and are fast running out of supplies with just days left of fuel for their generators.
Biden despatched his top diplomat to the Middle East to show Washington’s enduring support for Israel, seek to secure the release of captives, including Americans, and prevent war from spreading.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken will arrive on Thursday and will also visit Jordan. Hussein Al-Sheikh, secretary general of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said on social media platform X, that Blinken will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday.
Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas, an Islamist militant group backed by Iran, in 2007.
MESSAGE TO IRAN
Speaking to a roundtable of Jewish community leaders in Washington, Biden said 22 Americans were among the dead in what he described as acts of “sheer evil” by Hamas.
“This attack was a campaign of pure cruelty — not just hate, but pure cruelty — against the Jewish people,” he said, describing it as “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust”.
The war has overturned the plans of diplomats in the region, coming just as Israel was preparing to reach an agreement to normalise ties with Saudi Arabia, the richest Arab power, and months after Riyadh resumed ties with its regional rival Iran, sponsor of Hamas.
Tehran has celebrated the Hamas attacks but denied being behind them.
Biden said his deployment of military ships and aircraft closer to Israel should be seen as a signal to Iran, which backs Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
“We made it clear to the Iranians: Be careful,” Biden said.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed the conflict on Wednesday, in the first telephone call between the two leaders since the China-brokered deal between Tehran and Riyadh to resume ties.
‘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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav 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.
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.
Some 340,000 of Gaza’s 2.3 million population have been displaced due to the war, and around 65% of them have sought safety at shelters or schools, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the enclave.
Israel has deployed formations of tanks and armored vehicles near Gaza in possible preparation for a ground offensive into the enclave.
Israel withdrew its troops and settlers Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. Hamas seized power in the enclave in 2007 and Israel and Egypt have subjected the territory to a blockade ever since that has created conditions which Palestinians say are intolerable.
Washington said it was talking with Israel and Egypt about safe passage for civilians from Gaza, with food in short supply.
(This story has been refiled to correct a typo in the headline)
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Humeyra Pamuk, Jarrett Renshaw, Rami Ayyub, Simon Lewis, Dan Whitcomb and Ross Colvin in Washington, Maayan Lubell and Emily Rose in Jerusalem, and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Simon Lewis and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Howard Goller, Michael Perry, Peter Graff)