RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops and tanks launched an hourslong ground raid into northern Gaza overnight into Thursday, the military said, striking several militant targets in order to “prepare the battlefield” before a widely expected ground invasion after more than two weeks of devastating airstrikes.
The raid came after the U.N. warned that’s it’s on the verge of running out of fuel in the Gaza Strip, forcing it to sharply curtail relief efforts in the territory, which has also been under a complete siege since Hamas’ bloody rampage across southern Israel ignited the war earlier this month.
The rising death toll in Gaza, which soared past 7,000 on Thursday, according to Palestinian officials, is unprecedented in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even greater loss of life could come if Israel launches an expected ground offensive aimed at crushing Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and survived four previous wars with Israel.
The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Wednesday that more than 750 people were killed over the past 24 hours, higher than the 704 killed the previous day. The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify the death toll, and the ministry doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.
On Wednesday, the wife, son, daughter and grandson of Wael Dahdouh, a veteran Al-Jazeera correspondent in Gaza, were killed in an Israeli strike. The Qatar-based network showed footage of his grief upon entering a hospital and seeing his dead son. Dahdouh and other mourners attended the funerals on Thursday wearing the blue flak jackets used by reporters in the Palestinian territories.
The Israeli military says it only strikes militant targets and accuses Hamas of operating among civilians in densely-populated Gaza. Palestinian militants have fired rocket barrages into Israel since the war began.
Israel has vowed to crush Hamas’ capacity to govern Gaza or threaten it again, while also saying it doesn’t want to reoccupy the territory from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005. That could prove a daunting challenge, since Hamas is deeply rooted in Palestinian society, with political and charity organizations as well as a formidable armed wing.
‘Campaign Will Soon Ramp up’
Benny Gantz, a retired general and a member of Israel’s war Cabinet, said 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.
During the overnight raid, soldiers killed fighters and destroyed militant infrastructure and anti-tank missile launching positions, the military said. It said that no Israelis were wounded. There was no immediate confirmation of any Palestinian casualties.
Israeli Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a military spokesman, said the limited incursion was “part of our preparations for the next stages of the war.”
Israel also said it had also carried out around 250 airstrikes across Gaza in the last 24 hours, targeting tunnel shafts, rocket launchers and other militant infrastructure.
The Gaza Health Ministry says 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. The ministry’s toll includes more than 2,900 minors and more than 1,500 women.
The fighting has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel, mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack, according to the Israeli government. Hamas also holds at least 224 hostages in Gaza.
The warning by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, over depleting fuel supplies raised alarm that the humanitarian crisis could quickly worsen.
Gaza’s population has also been running out of food, water and medicine. About 1.4 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have fled their homes, with nearly half of them crowded into U.N. shelters. Hundreds of thousands remain in northern Gaza, despite Israel ordering them to evacuate to the south, saying those who remain might be considered “accomplices” of Hamas.
In recent days, Israel has let more than 60 trucks with aid enter from Egypt, which aid workers say is insufficient and only a tiny fraction of what was being brought in before the war. Israel is still barring deliveries of fuel — needed to power generators — saying it believes that Hamas will take it.
An official with the International Committee of the Red Cross said that it hopes to bring in eight trucks filled with vital medical supplies.
“This is a small amount of what is required, a drop in the ocean,” said William Schomburg, head of the sub-delegation in Gaza. “We are trying to establish a pipeline.”
UNRWA has been sharing its own fuel supplies so that trucks can distribute aid, bakeries can feed people in shelters, water can be desalinated, and hospitals can keep incubators, life support machines and other vital equipment working. If it continues doing all of that, fuel will run out by Thursday, so the agency is deciding how to ration its supply, UNRWA spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai told The Associated Press.
“Do we give (it) for the incubators or the bakeries?” she said. “It is an excruciating decision.”
More than half of Gaza’s primary health care facilities and roughly a third of its hospitals have stopped functioning, the World Health Organization said.
At Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital, the lack of medicine and clean water have led to “alarming” infection rates, the group Doctors Without Borders said. Amputations are often required to prevent infection from spreading in the wounded, it said.
One surgeon with the group described amputating half the foot of a 9-year-old boy with only “slight sedation” on a hallway floor as his mother and sister watched.
The conflict has also threatened to spread across the region. The Israeli military said Wednesday it struck military sites in Syria in response to rocket launches from the country. Syrian state media said that eight soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded.
Israel has also been exchanging near daily fire with Iranian-backed Hezbollah across the Lebanese border.
Israeli airstrikes and drone attacks early Thursday caused fires in open land in the southern Lebanon border town of Aita al Shaab, where clashes have intensified, Lebanon’s state-run news agency said. It reported strikes late Wednesday on towns in the Tyre district, saying a mattress factory was hit.
Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7 in southern Israel stunned the country with its brutality, its unprecedented toll and the failure of intelligence agencies to know it was coming. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech Wednesday night that he will be held accountable, but only after Hamas was defeated.
“We will get to the bottom of what happened,” he said. “This debacle will be investigated. Everyone will have to give answers, including me.”