US President Joe Biden will visit Israel Wednesday in a show of “ironclad” support as Washington tries to prevent the escalating war against Hamas in Gaza from spilling over into a wider Middle East conflict.
The trip will come 12 days after the Palestinian militants burst through Israel’s heavily fortified Gaza border, shooting, stabbing and burning to death more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
Shell-shocked Israel has responded with withering air strikes that have killed more than 2,700 people, also mainly civilians. It has also imposed a crippling siege on Gaza and deployed tens of thousands of troops to the border in preparation for a full-scale ground offensive.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas while also seeking to rescue the at least 199 hostages taken into Gaza by Hamas, which has released a video of one of the captives, French-Israeli woman Mia Shem.
Her mother, Keren Shem, made an emotional plea for her safe return, at a Tel Aviv press conference.
“I ask world leaders that my daughter be returned to us in the state that she is today, as well as the other hostages,” she said. “I am begging the world to bring my baby back home.”
Israel army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said Tuesday that its forces “will commence the enhanced military activities when the timing suits the goal.”
He stressed that “if hostages are dead, that is the responsibility of Hamas and Hamas will pay the price.”
Israelis are still reeling from the worst attack in the country’s 75-year history, which has brought a mass mobilization of reservists and the evacuation of about 500,000 people from areas near Gaza and Lebanon.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, back in Israel after a whistlestop regional tour, said Biden’s visit would be a statement of “solidarity with Israel” and an “ironclad commitment to its security.”
Washington has already sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean “to deter hostile actions against Israel.”
Israel’s arch foe Iran has repeatedly warned against a Gaza invasion and Monday raised the specter of a possible “pre-emptive action” against Israel.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Tuesday that “no one can stop resistance forces” if Israel keeps up its bombardment of Gaza.
Deadly flare-ups have rocked Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant movement is based. Israel said Tuesday it had again launched strikes on militants trying to cross and on “terrorist” targets.
‘Corpses in the streets’
While signaling support, Biden will also try to quietly steer Israel’s military response, as international alarm has grown about the devastating impact of the war on Palestinian civilians.
At least 2,750 Palestinians — mostly civilians — have been killed, entire neighborhoods have been razed and survivors are left with dwindling supplies of food, water and fuel.
“The situation is catastrophic beyond what I could have imagined,” said Jamil Abdullah, a Palestinian-Swede, hoping to flee the blockaded enclave.
“There are corpses in the streets. Buildings are crashing down on their inhabitants. Blood is everywhere. The smell of the dead is everywhere.”
AFP reporters in Gaza said mortuaries were overflowing, and corpses wrapped in white body bags were even being stored in an ice cream truck.