Besieged Palestinians await aid as Israel pounds Gaza
GAZA STRIP - Palestinians desperately awaited a first delivery of international emergency aid to Gaza Friday, as Israeli forces pounded the enclave from the air and warned a ground invasion was coming "soon".
For 13 days Israel has launched relentless air strikes on the Palestinian territory in retaliation for cross-border Hamas raids that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians who were shot, mutilated or burnt to death.
On Thursday, the Israeli army said it had destroyed a missile launch site and tunnels, claiming "more than 10 terrorists were eliminated".
Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry says that since the bombing began more than 3,785 Palestinians have been killed and one-third of homes have been made uninhabitable.
Citing a deepening humanitarian crisis, the international community has urged Israel to minimise civilian casualties and allow desperately-needed aid to enter Gaza.
But inside Israel, the drumbeat of crisis has only grown louder.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied frontline troops near Gaza Thursday.
Decked in body armour, he vowed troops would "fight like lions" and "win with full force".
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant also toured the frontline, telling some of the tens of thousands of troops awaiting the ground invasion that new orders would come soon.
"Right now you see Gaza from afar, soon you will see it from the inside. The order will come soon," he said, predicting "difficult" battles ahead.
After returning from a solidarity visit to Israel, US President Joe Biden on Thursday called on Congress to provide more funding for the bereaved country's crisis effort.
But he also urged implementation of a deal he brokered with Israel and Egypt to allow a limited amount of aid into Gaza from Friday.
"The people of Gaza urgently need food, water and medicine," Biden said in a televised address from the Oval Office on his return from Tel Aviv.
But near Egypt's border with Gaza, food, medicines, water purifiers and blankets have been piling up, with doubts growing that the Rafah crossing will open as planned.
"We hope there will be a crossing tomorrow," World Health Organization (WHO) boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday.
"But for sure, based on the experience we had the last few days, we are also at the same time worried whether this will happen."
'Drop in the ocean'
In Geneva, the WHO's emergencies director called the deal struck by Biden to allow in 20 trucks "a drop in the ocean of need".
"It should be 2,000 trucks," Michael Ryan said.
The UN World Food Programme said it has 951 tonnes of food at or on the way to Rafah -- enough to feed 488,000 people for one week.
But for now, it is not getting in, and the humanitarian situation in Gaza is worsening by the day.
In a grim sign of the depths of the crisis, the United Nations said that efforts to identify about 100 of the dead in Gaza had been abandoned.
With refrigeration impossible, their corpses were buried in unmarked graves to prevent the risk of disease.
Entire city blocks have been levelled in Gaza, displacing more than one million of its 2.4 million people, the UN has said.
The Hamas-controlled interior ministry said several people sheltering at a church compound were killed and injured in an Israeli strike late Thursday.
Witnesses told AFP the strike damaged the facade of the church and caused an adjacent building to collapse, adding that many injured people were evacuated to hospital.
The Israel Defense Forces acknowledged a wall of the church had been damaged in one of its air strikes targeting a "command and control center belonging to a Hamas terrorist."
"We are aware of reports on casualties. The incident is under review," a spokesperson told AFP.
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Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah II on Thursday condemned what they said was the "collective punishment" of Gazans.
They also warned about the conflict spreading, with anger across the Middle East at Israel and its Western allies.
Sisi and Abdullah, whose countries were the first Arab states to make peace with Israel in 1979 and 1994, are seen as key mediators between Israel and the Palestinians.
Intensifying cross-border fire between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon has stoked fears of a potential second front.
The United States, Britain and Germany on Thursday advised their citizens to leave Lebanon while flights were still available.
Hamas fighter spokesman Abu Obeida called for protests at Israeli and US embassies, "to have them closed and their ambassadors expelled from all Arab and Muslim countries".
The Arab world has been united in anger and condemnation of Israel since a deadly strike hit a Gaza hospital compound on Tuesday.
Both sides in the crisis have traded blame for the bloody carnage, but neither the provenance of the strike nor the death toll could immediately be independently verified.
Hamas accused Israel of hitting the hospital during its massive bombing campaign, and the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has put the death toll at 471, though that number is contested.
Israel has blamed a misfired rocket -- a version of events backed by the United States -- and has pointed to the lack of a large impact crater typical of its air strikes, saying fuel from the errant rocket exploded.
The US intelligence community has estimated there were likely 100 to 300 people killed in the strike. - AFP