(AP) — Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip early Friday, hitting areas where Palestinians had been told to seek safety, and it began evacuating a sizable Israeli town near the border with Lebanon, the latest sign of a potential ground invasion of Gaza that could trigger regional turmoil.
Amid the fighting, Israel’s defence minister said the country did not have plans to maintain control over civilians in Gaza after its war against the Hamas militant group.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s comments to lawmakers were the first time a top Israeli official discussed its long-term plans for Gaza. Gallant said Israel expected a three-phase war, starting with airstrikes and ground manoeuvres. It anticipates then defeating pockets of resistance, and finally, ceasing Israel’s “responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip.”
Palestinians in Gaza reported heavy airstrikes in Khan Youni, a town in the territory’s south, and ambulances carrying men, women and children streamed into the local Nasser Hospital. The hospital, Gaza’s second largest, already was overflowing with patients and people seeking shelter.
The Israeli military said it had struck more than 100 targets across Gaza linked to the territory’s Hamas rulers, including a tunnel and arms depots.
On Thursday, Gallant ordered ground troops to prepare to see Gaza “from the inside,” hinting at a ground offensive aimed at crushing Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers nearly two weeks after their bloody incursion into Israel. Officials have given no timetable for such an operation.
Over a million people have been displaced in Gaza, with many heeding Israel’s orders to evacuate the northern part of the sealed-off enclave on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called areas in south Gaza “safe zones” earlier this week, Israeli military spokesman Nir Dinar said Friday: “There are no safe zones.”
UN officials said that with the bombings across all of Gaza, some Palestinians who had fled the north appeared to be going back.
“The strikes, coupled with extremely difficult living conditions in the south, appear to have pushed some to return to the north, despite the continuing heavy bombing there,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN human rights office, said.
Gaza’s overwhelmed hospitals are rationing their dwindling medical supplies and fuel for generators, as authorities worked out logistics for a desperately needed aid delivery from Egypt. Doctors in darkened wards across Gaza performed surgeries by the light of mobile phones and used vinegar to treat infected wounds.
The deal to get aid into Gaza through the territory’s only entry point not controlled by Israel, remained fragile. Israel said the supplies could only go to civilians and that it would “thwart” any diversions by Hamas. More than 200 trucks and some 3,000 tons of aid were positioned at or near the crossing in Rafah, a city that straddles northern Egypt and southern Gaza.
Work began Friday to repair the road at the border that had been damaged in airstrikes, with trucks unloading gravel and bulldozers and other road repair equipment filling in large craters.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the crossing Friday and appealed for the quick movement of aid into Gaza, calling it “the difference between life and death.”
Israel has evacuated its own communities near Gaza and Lebanon, putting residents up in hotels elsewhere in the country. The Defense Ministry announced evacuation plans Friday for Kiryat Shmona, a town of more than 20,000 residents near the Lebanese border. Three Israelis including a five-year-old girl were wounded in a rocket attack there Thursday, according to Israeli health services.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, which has a massive arsenal of long-range rockets, has traded fire with Israel along the border on a near-daily basis and hinted it might join the war if Israel seeks to annihilate Hamas. Israel’s archfoe Iran supports both armed groups.
The violence in Gaza has also sparked protests across the region, including in Arab countries allied with the US. Those demonstrations could flare anew Friday following weekly Muslim prayers.