Israel pummels Gaza as US sees ‘significant’ risk of attacks on Mideast interests

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Fears that the Israel-Hamas war could mushroom into wider Middle East conflict rose on Sunday with Washington warning of a significant risk to US interests in the region as ally Israel pounded Gaza and clashes on its border with Lebanon intensified.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said 266 Palestinians, including 117 children, had been killed by Israeli airstrikes in the past 24 hours in the enclave, to which Israel laid “total siege” after a deadly mass infiltration into Israel by Hamas gunmen on October 7.

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In neighboring Syria - where Hamas’ main regional backer Iran has a military presence - Israeli missiles hit Damascus and Aleppo international airports early on Sunday, putting both out of service and killing two workers, Syrian state media said.

Along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the Iran-backed Hezbollah group has clashed with Israeli forces in support of Hamas in the deadliest escalation of frontier violence since an Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006.

Hezbollah said four fighters were killed in heavy exchanges of fire on Sunday and another died of wounds sustained earlier, raising to 24 the number of its members killed since October 7.

Lebanese security sources said 11 fighters with Palestinian militant groups in Lebanon had also been killed in the volatile border region, alongside four civilians. At least five Israeli soldiers and one civilian have been killed on Israel’s side of the frontier, according to Israeli military reports.

With violence around its heavily guarded borders increasing, Israel on Sunday added 14 communities close to Lebanon and Syria to its evacuation contingency plan in the north of the country.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday that Washington would send more military assets to the Middle East in support of Israel and strengthen the US defense posture in the region after “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces” - a reference to Hezbollah, Palestinian and other militants.

Austin told ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday: “We’re concerned about potential escalation. In fact, what we’re seeing … is the prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region.

“If any group or any country is looking to widen this conflict and take advantage of this very unfortunate situation ... our advice is: don’t,” he added.

Washington has deployed a significant amount of naval power to the Middle East of late, including two aircraft carriers, support ships and about 2,000 Marines, to help deter attacks by Iran-affiliated forces that could inflame the wider region.

Austin said a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and extra Patriot air defense missile system battalions will be sent to the region and more troops put on standby.

Iranian security officials told Reuters Iran’s strategy was for Middle East proxies like Hezbollah to pursue limited strikes on Israeli and US targets but avoid a major escalation that would draw in Tehran, a high-wire act for the Islamic Republic.

Israeli blitz on Hamas-ruled Gaza

Israel unleashed an aerial blitz on Gaza to its southwest after Hamas militants breached the border and carried out a shock rampage through nearby communities, killing 1,400 people, mainly civilians, and taking 212 hostages back to Gaza.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said on Sunday that Israel’s air and missile strikes in retaliation had killed at least 4,741 and wounded 15,898, with over a million of the tiny, densely populated enclave’s 2.3 million people displaced.

Israel has amassed tanks and troops near the fenced border around Gaza for a planned ground invasion aiming to annihilate Hamas, after several inconclusive wars dating to its seizure of power there in 2007, after Israel ended a 38-year occupation.

Elaborating on Israel’s strategy in remarks to Fox TV, military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said it was “to have a weakened, tired and dislocated Hamas in preparation for our next stage of military operations.

“Our working assumption,” he said, “is that Hamas has prepared the battlefield, that there are various dimensions of warfare ready for us - specifically tunnels - and that Hamas, at least in the first and the intermediate stages, will fight and will inflict heavy casualties on (Israeli forces).”

Hamas’ armed wing said it had fired more rockets at Tel Aviv on Sunday. There was no immediate word of damage or casualties.

With Israel keeping up daily bombings that have devastated swathes of heavily urbanized Gaza, Palestinians said they received renewed Israeli military warnings to move from Gaza’s north to the south to avoid the deadliest theatre of the war.

They said military leaflets dropped on the territory, just 45 km (28 miles) long, contained the added warning that they could be identified as sympathizers with a “terrorist organization” if they stayed put.

“For your own safety, move southward. We will continue to attack in the area of Gaza City and increase attacks,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said most of the dead from air strikes over the past 24 hours were in Gaza’s south. Israel says it is only targeting militants and that they often use residential buildings as cover.

Humanitarian crisis

Deprived of electricity and water under Israeli siege, Gazans in the southern town of Khan Younis said they were struggling to feed their children, forming long queues to get bread made scarcer by power blackouts and a lack of flour.

“We are suffering extremely, waiting since dawn to get bread. If this continues for two more days it will be catastrophic,” said Saleh Skafi, a father of four from north Gaza now sheltering in Khan Younis. “The situation is tragic.”

The first humanitarian aid convoy allowed into Gaza since war erupted arrived in southern Gaza from Egypt on Saturday after days of tortuous negotiations. The UN said the 20-truck convoy brought life-saving medical supplies and some food.

A second convoy of around 19 trucks loaded with medical and food supplies entered the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing on Sunday and was being inspected before proceeding into Gaza, security and humanitarian sources said.

But the UN humanitarian office said the volume of aid entering so far was just 4 percent of the daily average before the hostilities and a fraction of what was needed with food, water, medicines and fuel stocks running out.

Moreover, Israel has refused to allow in fuel as part of aid shipments lest it ends up in Hamas’ hands.

“Without fuel, the humanitarian response will stop. There will be no water, no functioning hospitals and bakeries,” said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA. “This cannot and should not happen.”

Read more:

Israel warns Gazans to move south or risk being seen as ‘terrorist’ accomplice

Gaza health ministry: 4,651 Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes since October 7

Iran warns Middle East will ‘go out of control’ if Israel continues Gaza war

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