Israel said on Saturday evening that its military forces were preparing to carry out “wide-scale operational offensive plans” ahead of an expected full-scale ground invasion of Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces said its soldiers were deployed “across the country” and were increasing “operational readiness for the next phase of the war, with an emphasis on significant ground operations.”
Israeli forces have been bombing Gaza since last week’s attack by Hamas. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes in recent days after Israel ordered 1.1 million citizens – nearly half of Gaza’s population – to leave the densely populated northern part of the enclave, including Gaza City.
“We are attacking Gaza City because it is the center of Hamas’ regime and military capabilities, and we must attack them with heavy force,” IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters.
The IDF said its forces were preparing for an “expanded war zone” and that preparatory operations “include coordinated and coordinated attacks from the air, sea and land.”
The announcement came earlier Saturday after Palestinians with dual US citizenship and other foreign passport holders told diplomats they would allow some departures from Gaza to enter Egypt.
However, no one has been allowed to leave, said four diplomats working on the issue. An official said the convoys moved “back and forth” with conflicting reports as to why the border was not open.
A U.S. official said Palestinians with dual U.S. citizenship were encouraged to go to the Rafah crossing, but the situation was changing.
An Arab diplomat said the Biden administration had asked Qatar to convince Hamas not to prevent Palestinians with US citizenship from leaving the area, to which the Islamist group agreed. The US has asked the Egyptians to open Rafah and let them in, but “the Egyptians have not yet agreed to open the border to the Americans,” the official said.
The only exit from Gaza is Rafah, which is not under Israeli control, and has been largely sealed off, leaving 2.3 million Palestinians with no way out since Israel imposed a blockade in response to a violent takeover by Hamas in 2007.
Cairo has long worried that Israel wants to push its problems with Gaza onto Egypt.
Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said “Egypt will not accept safe passage for US and other foreign nationals unless there is an agreement to open the border for humanitarian goods.”
Separately, Qatar and the United States are trying to finalize a deal to free civilian hostages held by Hamas, a person briefed on the talks said.
The person added that Israel should suspend its bombardment of Gaza to allow Hamas to safely release the hostages and safely deliver humanitarian aid to the area.
“There were positive meetings yesterday, and Hamas seems ready to release civilian hostages, but Hamas says it cannot do so while the bombing continues,” said one person involved in the talks. “The Israelis must temporarily halt the bombing of Gaza to allow the safe release of prisoners.”
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held talks with the Prime Minister of Qatar on Friday. Qatar, a US ally, also hosts Hamas’ political office.
Israel’s military says it has identified 120 hostages taken in the Hamas infiltration.
Israeli officials said at least 1,300 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed in the attack on southern Israel. At least 2,515 people – 1,182 of them women and children – have been killed in Gaza since Israel began bombing, Palestinian health officials said.
The US State Department said on Saturday night that 29 US citizens had died, while 15 others were unaccounted for.
Israel’s warning to Palestinians in northern Gaza to move south has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, and Arab countries and the UN
The EU’s top diplomat said on Saturday that Israel must respect international law.
“It is absolutely impossible to implement,” said Joseph Borrell, who visited Beijing.
The Israeli military declined to discuss any timeframe, but reiterated its demand that civilians leave as soon as possible. “Follow our instructions – go south,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said Israel’s order for Palestinians to leave northern Gaza while the war was “raging” was a “flagrant violation of international law, international humanitarian law and the law of war”.
Israel’s offensive has caused a humanitarian catastrophe that represents “the collective punishment of more than 2 million Palestinians” and is “plunging the entire region toward the abyss,” he said.
Israel has cut off food, water and electricity to Gaza. The UN says water supplies are severely limited, forcing people to drink brackish water and raising disease fears.
“Death is better than this life,” said Mona Hanafi, 55, who came to the UN after her home in Gaza City was destroyed. He took refuge in a run school. “There are very few bathrooms, no water. We only ate biscuits since yesterday. We went to a supermarket, but there was nothing there.
IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus said Israel intends to “enhance our military operations” in Gaza City, which is also the center of Hamas’ political and military apparatus.
US President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday that the US is coordinating with other countries to “ensure innocent civilians have access to water, food and medical care,” the White House said.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed Israel’s continued efforts to restore security, “the importance of upholding the law of war, including civilian protection obligations, and addressing the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
The White House said Biden also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai