The hours-long “brigade-level raid”, the biggest of a number of raids Israeli forces have made into Gaza recently, comes ahead of a widely anticipated full-ground offensive that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed will go ahead.
Israel has also unleashed its heaviest-ever bombardment of Gaza, which is home to more than two million people, in retaliation for a bloody attack by Hamas, who stormed communities in southern Israel on 7 October, killing 1,400 people and taking more than 220 hostage. Ratcheting up its bombing campaign, Israel’s military said in the last 24 hours alone it had launched 250 airstrikes across Gaza, targeting tunnel shafts and rocket launchers.
The military also shared grainy footage of Israeli tanks crossing into the besieged enclave, where rear admiral Daniel Hagari, a military spokesperson, said the troops “eliminated terrorists, neutralised threats, dismantled explosives [and] neutralised ambushes” as “part of our preparations for the next stages of combat”.
Colonel Richard Hecht said infantry, tanks and armoured bulldozers were involved and the forces went 1.5km into Gaza from the border fence.
“It was [a] targeted technical raid in and out – there was an anti-tank missile fired at one of our tanks. There will be more of these raids he added.”
The health ministry in the Hamas-run strip has said that more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war – a figure that includes the disputed toll from an explosion at a hospital. That is more than three times the number of Palestinians killed in the six-week-long Gaza war in 2014, which amounted to 2,251, mostly civilians, according to UN figures. The ministry’s current toll includes more than 2,900 children and more than 1,500 women. It said the latest strikes killed 750 people, the highest reported death toll in a 24-hour period so far. An airstrike on the southern town of Khan Younis hit a residential building where 75 people were staying, according to family members, including 25 who had fled other parts of Gaza.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades said on their Telegram on Thursday that nearly 50 hostages held captive in Gaza had been killed in airstrikes. The Israeli military declined to comment on this report which could not be independently verified.
Israel has called for Palestinians to evacuate from northern to southern Gaza, but UN officials have said that “nowhere is safe” in the Strip. “When people north as well as south are caught up in hostilities, when the essentials for survival are lacking, and when there are no assurances for return, people are left with nothing but impossible choices,” the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Lynn Hastings, said. “Nowhere is safe in Gaza.”
Elsewhere, the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco condemned the targeting of civilians and violations of international law in Gaza in a joint statement. It mentioned that the right to self-defence does not justify breaking the law and neglecting Palestinians’ rights. The Arab foreign ministers also condemned forced displacement and collective punishment in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has told Pope Francis that the international community’s silence over what was happening in Gaza was a “shame for humanity”. In a statement, he was quoted as telling the Pope during a telephone conversation that everyone should support efforts to deliver “uninterrupted aid to innocent civilians” in Gaza.
It comes as EU leaders are set to call for the establishment of “humanitarian corridors and pauses” to get urgently needed aid into Gaza, according to the final draft of a text to be approved at a summit in Brussels on Thursday. World leaders – including Rishi Sunak – have called for pauses in the fighting to allow delivery of aid and evacuation of foreign citizens including British citizens.
Mr Erdogan also slammed the European Union in a televised speech, for failing to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. “How many more children must die before the EU Commission calls for a ceasefire,” he said. “How many more tons of bombs must fall on Gaza before the United Nations Security Council can take action?” Mr Erdogan also accused the West of failing to see the violence unfolding in Gaza “because the blood being shed is Muslim blood”.
The United Nations has made repeated pleas for a humanitarian ceasefire, warning that a crippling Israel-imposed siege alongside the airstrikes means it will have to stop delivery of aid and halt support to hospitals, bakeries and water treatment plants. The United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) said it urgently needed fuel to maintain life-saving humanitarian operations “The coming 24 hours are very critical," it said.
Israel has refused to let in fuel with aid shipments, saying it could be seized by Hamas.
The health ministry in Gaza announced the closure of more hospitals and said on Wednesday the healthcare system has collapsed. The UN and rights groups have warned hundreds are at risk – including premature babies and patients dependent on dialysis – if generator fuels run out amid the siege, which UN experts say amounts to collective punishment and is a violation of international law. Hospitals are operating beyond capacity without power, ambulances are running out of fuel and first responders cannot pull the injured or dead out from under the rubble.
A trickle of supplies have been permitted to cross from Egypt into Gaza, but Israel has barred the transfer of fuel, claiming it could be used by Hamas militant power rockets. The Palestinian arm of the Red Crescent says 12 lorries have crossed into Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing on Thursday.
Mr Netanyahu, in a televised speech on Wednesday night, did not address calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and doubled down on the ground invasion.
The timing of the invasion “will be determined unanimously by the War Cabinet”, Mr Netanyahu said adding that the government was working on it “around the clock.”
“We are raining down hellfire on Hamas ... and this is only the beginning. At the same time, we are preparing for a ground incursion. I will not detail when, how or how many, or the overall considerations that we are taking into account, most of which are unknown to the public, and this is how it needs to be, in order to better safeguard the lives of our soldiers,” he added.
Benny Gantz, a retired general and a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said on Thursday that any possible ground offensive would be only “one stage in a long-term process that includes security, political and social aspects that will take years”.
“The campaign will soon ramp up with greater force,” he added.
Later, when asked about a ground invasion, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said: “The day it will come is not far off ... the manoeuvre will start when conditions are right.”
The Israeli military said that the families of 224 hostages had now been informed. Israel says among them are 138 foreign citizens, including two Britons and 12 Americans. The UK government has said it believes five people are missing in the wake of the Hamas attack.
There had been reports the ground incursion was put on hold to allow more time to negotiate the release of hostages, and because of concerns it could trigger a wider regional war. Mr Gallant said that Israel has “no interest in expanding the war” beyond Gaza. He would not comment on the possibility of a hostage release mediated by Qatar, who have been speaking to Hamas, but said "any channel is a possibility as long as the goal is met"