KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (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 defense 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 maneuvers. 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.”
U.N. 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 U.N. 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.
U.N. 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 5-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 U.S. Those demonstrations could flare anew Friday following weekly Muslim prayers.
In an address from the Oval Office on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden again pledged unwavering support for Israel’s security, while saying the world “can’t ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians” in Gaza.
Speaking hours after returning to Washington from an urgent visit to Israel, Biden linked the current war in Gaza to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying Hamas and Russian President Vladimir Putin “both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.”
Biden said he was sending an “urgent budget request” to Congress on Friday, to cover emergency military aid to both Israel and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, an unclassified U.S. intelligence assessment delivered to Congress estimated casualties in an explosion at a Gaza City hospital this week on the “low end” of 100 to 300 deaths. The death toll “still reflects a staggering loss of life,” said the report, seen by The Associated Press. It said intelligence officials were still assessing the evidence and their casualty estimate may evolve.
The report echoed earlier assessments by U.S. officials that the blast at the al-Ahli hospital was not caused by an Israeli airstrike, as the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza initially reported. Israel has presented video, audio and other evidence it says proves the blast was caused by a rocket misfired by Palestinian militants.
The AP has not independently verified any of the claims or evidence released by the parties.
An Israeli airstrike hit a Greek Orthodox church housing displaced Palestinians near the hospital late Thursday. The Israeli military said it had targeted a Hamas command and control center nearby, causing damage to a church wall. Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry said 16 Palestinian Christians were killed.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchy of Jerusalem condemned the attack and said it would “not abandon its religious and humanitarian duty” to provide assistance.
The Israeli military has relentlessly attacked Gaza in retaliation for the devastating Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
Palestinian militants have meanwhile launched unrelenting rocket attacks into Israel — more than 6,900, according to Israel — and tensions have flared in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Thirteen Palestinians, including five minors, were killed Thursday during a battle with Israeli troops in which Israel called in an airstrike, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. An Israeli border police officer was killed in the fighting, Israel said.
The Gaza Health Ministry said 4,137 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, the majority women, children and older adults. Over 12,500 were injured, and another 1,300 people were believed buried under rubble, authorities said.
More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, mostly civilians slain during Hamas’ deadly incursion. Roughly 200 others were abducted. The Israeli military said Thursday it had notified the families of 203 captives.
In a fiery speech on Thursday to Israeli infantry soldiers on the Gaza border, Gallant, the defense minister, urged them to “be ready” to move in. Israel has called up some 360,000 reserves and massed tens of thousands of troops along the Gaza border.
“Whoever sees Gaza from afar now, will see it from the inside,” he said. “It might take a week, a month, two months until we destroy them,” he added, referring to Hamas.
With supplies running low because of a complete Israeli siege, some Gaza residents are down to one meal a day and drinking dirty water.
Egypt and Israel were still negotiating the entry of fuel for hospitals. Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Hamas has stolen fuel from U.N. facilities and Israel wants assurances that won’t happen again.
The Gaza Health Ministry has pleaded with gas stations to give fuel to hospitals, and a U.N. agency also donated some of its last fuel. Gaza’s sole power plant shut down last week, forcing Palestinians to rely on generators, and no fuel has gone in since the start of the war.
The agency’s donation to Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest, would “keep us going for another few hours,” said Mohammed Abu Selmia, the hospital director.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem and Kullab from Baghdad. Associated Press journalists Amy Teibel and Isabel Debre in Jerusalem; Samy Magdy and Jack Jeffrey in Cairo; Matthew Lee and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington, and Ashraf Sweilam in el-Arish, Egypt, contributed to this report.