Israel steps up bombing of Gaza hours after first relief convoy enters

The military said it aimed to reduce the risks its troops would face as they enter Gaza in the next phase of the war

October 22, 2023 03:29 am | Updated 06:29 pm IST - Rafah, Palestinian Territories

Crying women hug as victims are being pulled from the rubble of a building which collapsed after an airstrike in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.

Crying women hug as victims are being pulled from the rubble of a building which collapsed after an airstrike in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

The Israeli military announced it was stepping up its bombardment of Hamas-controlled Gaza Saturday just hours after the first aid trucks arrived from Egypt bringing desperately needed relief to civilians in the war-torn enclave.

The military said it aimed to reduce the risks its troops would face as they enter Gaza in the next phase of the war it launched on Hamas after the militant group carried out the deadliest attack in Israel's history on October 7.

Hamas militants killed at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians who were shot, mutilated or burnt to death, and took more than 200 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

Israel has retaliated with a relentless bombing campaign that has killed more than 4,300 Palestinians in Gaza, mainly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

An Israeli siege has cut food, water, electricity and fuel supplies to the densely populated territory of 2.4 million people, sparking fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Tens of thousands of Israeli troops have deployed to the Gaza border ahead of an expected ground offensive that officials have pledged will begin "soon".

"From today, we are increasing the strikes and minimising the danger," military spokesman Admiral Daniel Hagari told a press conference Saturday.

"We have to enter the next phase of the war in the best conditions, not according to what anyone tells us."

On a visit to a frontline infantry brigade, chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi said troops were ready to deal with any surprises Hamas had in store for them when they enter Gaza.

"Gaza is densely populated, the enemy is preparing a lot of things there -- but we are also preparing for them," Mr. Halevi said.

AFP journalists saw 20 trucks from the Egyptian Red Crescent pass through the Rafah border crossing from Egypt into Gaza on Saturday.

The crossing -- the only one into Gaza not controlled by Israel -- closed again after the trucks passed.

The lorries had been waiting for days on the Egyptian side after Israel agreed to a request from its main ally the United States to allow aid to enter.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said the 20 trucks admitted on Saturday fell far short of the needs of Gazans, more than one million of whom have been forced from their homes.

"Much more" aid needs to be sent, Mr. Guterres told a peace summit in Egypt.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the aid and urged "all parties" to keep the Rafah crossing open.

But a Hamas spokesman said "even dozens" of such convoys could not meet Gaza's requirements, especially as no fuel was being allowed in to help distribute the supplies to those in need.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hosted a peace summit attended by regional and some Western leaders.

"The time has come for action to end this godawful nightmare," Mr. Guterres told the summit, calling for a "humanitarian ceasefire".

Mr. Guterres said "the grievances of the Palestinian people are legitimate and long" after "56 years of occupation with no end in sight".

But he stressed that "nothing can justify the reprehensible assault by Hamas that terrorised Israeli civilians".

"Those abhorrent attacks can never justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people," he added.

According to Arab diplomats who spoke with AFP on condition of anonymity, the summit broke up without a joint statement, highlighting the gulf between Arab and Western countries on how best to bring lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Western delegates demanded "a clear condemnation placing responsibility for the escalation on Hamas" but Arab leaders refused, the diplomats said.

Instead, the Egyptian hosts released a statement -- drafted with the approval of Arab delegates -- criticising world leaders for seeking to "manage the conflict and not end it permanently".

The statement said such "temporary solutions and palliatives... do not live up to even the lowest aspirations" of the Palestinian people.

Israel bemoaned the lack of a condemnation of the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

"It is unfortunate that even when faced with those horrific atrocities, there were some who had difficulty condemning terrorism or acknowledging the danger," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

A full-blown Israeli ground offensive of Gaza carries many risks, including to the hostages Hamas took and whose fate is shrouded in uncertainty.

So the release of two Americans among the hostages -- mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan -- offered a rare "sliver of hope", said Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

U.S. President Joe Biden thanked Qatar, which hosts Hamas's political bureau, for its mediation in securing the release.

He said he was working "around the clock" to win the return of other Americans being held.

Natalie Raanan's half-brother Ben told the BBC he felt an "overwhelming sense of joy" at the release after "the most horrible of ordeals".

Hamas said Egypt and Qatar had negotiated the release and that it was "working with all mediators to implement the movement's decision to close the civilian (hostage) file if appropriate security conditions allow".

Almost half of Gaza's residents have been displaced, and at least 30% of all housing in the territory has been destroyed or damaged, the United Nations says.

Thousands have taken refuge in a camp set up in the city of Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.

Fadwa al-Najjar said she and her seven children walked for 10 hours to reach the camp, at some points breaking into a run as missiles struck around them.

"We saw bodies and limbs torn off and we just started praying, thinking we were going to die," she told AFP.

The United States has moved two aircraft carriers into the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran or Lebanon's Hezbollah, both Hamas allies, amid fears of a wider conflagration.

Exchanges of fire continued across Israel's border with Lebanon Friday.

Hezbollah reported the loss of four of its fighters while Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad reported one fighter killed.

In Israel, two Thai farm workers were wounded, emergency services said.

Violence has also flared in the West Bank, where 84 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, according to the health ministry.

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