Israel vows to step up Gaza strikes before ground invasionADEL ZAANOUN, CHLOE ROUVEYROLLES-BAZIRE
RAFAH - Israel's military has announced intensified strikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza ahead of a planned ground invasion, as the Pentagon said Sunday it was bolstering defences in the Middle East over "escalations" by Iran and its allies.
A first trickle of aid entered the blockaded Gaza Strip on Saturday, but the 20 trucks permitted to cross were described as a "drop in the ocean" given the "catastrophic" humanitarian situation for 2.4 million residents.
The military has pounded Gaza with relentless strikes in response to Hamas's murderous Oct 7 attack, in which killed at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians who were shot, mutilated or burnt to death, according to Israeli officials.fighters
The bombing campaign has killed more than 4,300 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and reduced swathes of the densely-populated territory to smouldering ruins.
Over 40 per cent of all housing has been damaged or destroyed, according to the UN citing local authorities, and Israel has halted the delivery of food, water, fuel and electricity.
Israel will now intensify its bombardment, to minimise the risks to its troops when they begin a ground invasion, military spokesman Admiral Daniel Hagari said.
"From today, we are increasing the strikes and minimising the danger," he said.
"We will increase the attacks and therefore I called on Gaza City residents to continue moving south for their safety." Israel has warned more than one million residents of the northern part of Gaza to move south for their safety, and the UN says more than half the enclave's population is now internally displaced.
Bombardment has continued in southern parts of the Strip though, with Hamas authorities reporting nine killed in an airstrike in Khan Younis overnight.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to remain in and around Gaza City in the north, unwilling or unable to leave.
The conflict has raised fears of a broader regional war, and Washington said it would deploy defence batteries and additional Patriot battalions to protect US forces.
The Pentagon also said it was notifying additional troops "prepare to deploy orders" without specifying how many or when they could be dispatched.
Israeli troops have massed on the border with Gaza and commanders visited frontline units on Saturday to rally troops.
"We will enter Gaza," chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi told one infantry brigade on a visit.
"Gaza is densely populated, the enemy is preparing a lot of things there - but we are also preparing for them," Halevi said.
A ground invasion poses myriad challenges for Israeli troops, who are likely to be confronted by Hamas booby traps and tunnels in a densely packed urban environment.
The safety of over 200 hostages abducted by Hamas is another complicating factor.
Two American hostages were released on Friday evening, after mediation from Qatar, which said more could be freed "very soon." "We are taking a path that will very soon lead to release of the hostages, especially civilians," Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari told the German Welt am Sonntag newspaper Saturday.
"We are currently working on an agreement under which all civilian hostages will be initially released," he added.
After negotiations and US pressure, food, water and medicine, but no fuel, crossed from Egypt into Gaza on Saturday.
The crossing closed afterwards, and UN officials warned much more was needed.
"Gaza was a desperate humanitarian situation before the most recent hostilities," five UN agencies said in a statement.
"It is now catastrophic. The world must do more." At a peace summit in Egypt, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged a humanitarian ceasefire "to end this godawful nightmare." The summit ended without a joint statement however, with Western officials demanding a clear condemnation of Hamas, and Arab attendees issuing their own statement criticising world leaders.
Inside Gaza, shellshocked residents said they were unsure where to go or how to protect their families.
"Even in my worst nightmares, I never thought this could be possible," said Rami Abu Wazna, staring at the destruction in central Gaza's Al-Zahra neighbourhood.
The scale of the bombing has left basic systems unable to function, with the UN reporting around 40 unidentified bodies were buried in a mass grave in Gaza City on Saturday because cold storage ran out before they could be identified.
Across the border in Israel's Kibbutz Beeri, where Hamas militants killed 10 per cent of the population, preparations were underway for funerals on Sunday.
Romy Gold, 70, said residents were still struggling to comprehend the horror of their experience.
"Around us whole families were shot or butchered or burned alive," he told AFP.
Like many, he believes ground invasion of Gaza "cannot come fast enough. Something needs to be done." "We need some kind of assurance that it will not happen again," he said.
The conflict has touched off fresh violence in the West Bank, where dozens of Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids and settler attacks.
Israel's military said Sunday it killed "terror operatives" planning attacks in an airstrike on a mosque in Jenin.
One person was killed and three injured in the strike, the Palestinian news agency Wafa said, citing the local Red Crescent.
On Israel's northern border with Lebanon, the military continued to trade fire with militant group Hezbollah, which said four of its fighters had been killed. A member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad was also reported killed.
Israeli authorities reported three soldiers wounded, one of them seriously, in Hezbollah anti-tank fire on the village of Baram, and two Thai farm workers were also wounded.
Western leaders have warned Hezbollah against intervening in the conflict, but the group's number two said it stood ready to step up involvement.
"Let's be clear, as events unfold, if something comes up that calls for greater intervention by us, we will do so," Naim Qassem said.
Israel has evacuated dozens of northern communities, and nearly 4,000 people in Lebanon have fled border areas for the southern city of Tyre.
"All my children are young. If the apocalypse comes, how will I get them all out in one go?" said Mustafa al-Sayyid, in a classroom stripped of desks and dotted with thin mattresses.
"So I thought, better to leave now." - AFP