Israel stated its ground soldiers moved into Gaza overnight to bomb Hamas targets, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the country was still prepared for a ground invasion, which may be one of several.
The US and other countries are encouraging Israel to postpone a complete invasion; Gaza is reeling from nearly three weeks of Israeli bombing, started by an Iranian-backed Hamas killing spree in southern Israel, which administers the confined territory.
Other Iranian-backed groups have since attacked Israel and U.S. forces elsewhere in the region; Western leaders fear that a ground invasion with a high death toll among Palestinian civilians, who have already been killed in large numbers by Israeli air strikes, could spark a wider war.
U.S. President Joe Biden held a call with Netanyahu, discussing “ongoing efforts to locate and secure the release” of Americans believed held hostage by militants in Gaza, the White House said overnight.
Israel said there were 224 hostages. Hamas has threatened to kill some of those it holds, who include many foreign passport holders, but has freed four since Friday. Gaza began receiving a small amount of aid the following day.
The White House said Biden and Netanyahu also discussed safe passage for other foreigners wishing to leave Gaza, a continuous flow of aid into the narrow coastal strip, and a pathway to permanent peace with the Palestinian people.
“The President reiterated that Israel has every right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism and to do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law,” the statement said.
The comments reflect a balancing act over U.S. support for Israel’s actions after Biden was criticised for casting doubt on Palestinian casualty figures.
Netanyahu, who has suggested repeatedly that a ground invasion is imminent, told citizens in an address on Wednesday evening: “I will not elaborate on when, how or how many.”
Israeli army radio said the military had overnight staged its biggest incursion into northern Gaza in the current war against Hamas, which Israel has vowed to eliminate.
The military later released video on X showing armoured vehicles crossing the highly fortified barrier from Israel and blowing up buildings “in preparation for the next stages of combat”.
“Tanks and infantry struck numerous terrorist cells, infrastructure and anti-tank missile launch posts,” it said.
Palestinians in Gaza said Israeli air strikes had pounded the territory again overnight and people living in central Gaza, near the Bureij refugee camp and east of Qarara village, reported intensive tank shelling all night.
Hamas did not comment directly on the Israeli report but said its armed wing had struck an Israeli helicopter east of Bureij. The Israeli military said it was “not aware of this”.
Israel has carried out weeks of intense bombardment of the densely populated Strip following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israeli communities, which it says killed some 1,400 people.
Gaza’s health ministry said on Thursday that 7,028 Palestinians had been killed in the air strikes, including 2,913 children.
“Behind every announced number, there is a known human being with a name and an identity,” ministry spokesman Dr Ashraf al-Qidra said. He urged those who doubted its figures to examine its methodology.
Reuters has not been able to independently verify the death toll on either side.
In Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, an Israeli air strike hit a house, killing a mother, her three daughters and a baby boy, whose father held his body in hospital.
“Did he kill? Did he wound someone? Did he capture someone? They were innocent children inside their house,” he said.
The director of the Nasser hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis, Nahed Abu Taaema, said the bodies of 77 people killed in air strikes had been brought in overnight, most of them women and children, Hamas’s Al-Aqsa radio station reported.
Many Palestinians are sheltering in Khan Younis’s hospitals, schools, homes and existing refugee camps and on the street after Israel warned them to leave their homes in the north.
Israel did not respond directly to the report but said its forces had struck a Hamas missile launch post in the Khan Younis area that was next to a mosque and kindergarten.
It was not clear if both sides were referring to the same incident.
Humanitarian supplies are critically low but world powers failed at the United Nations to agree on how to call for a lull to the fighting to deliver significant amounts of aid. Mass graves have begun to be used as the civilian toll has mounted.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said 74 trucks carrying food, water and medical supplies had crossed from Egypt since Saturday, a small fraction of Gaza’s peacetime needs. Israel has cut off electricity as well as fuel for pumps and generators, saying Hamas would just divert it.
Two Egyptian security sources have told Reuters that any scaling-up of aid will be linked to Hamas’s willingness to free hostages. Israel has not confirmed this, saying that it fears Hamas will smuggle weapons in.
Reflecting concerns the Gaza war may spread, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had agreed to delay invading Gaza until U.S. air defence systems can be placed in the region, potentially as early as this week, to protect American forces.
Asked about the report, U.S. officials told Reuters that Washington had raised concerns with Israel that an incursion into Gaza could be a trigger for Iranian proxies to attack U.S. troops in the Middle East.
Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy, which backs armed groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen as well as Hamas as part of a long-running bid for regional ascendancy, has warned Israel to stop its onslaught on Gaza.