By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
Gaza/Jerusalem: Israel stepped up bombings of south Gaza, killing many Palestinians, officials said on Wednesday, as violence flared elsewhere in the Middle East and competing resolutions at the United Nations failed to pass.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled from north to south in tiny, crowded Gaza after Israel warned them it would bombard mainly the north to wipe out Hamas militants after their cross-border killing and kidnapping spree in Israel on October 7.
Among Wednesday’s casualties, an internally displaced person was killed and 44 were injured in an air strike near an UNRWA school in the southern town of Rafah, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip said.
The school was sheltering 4600 people and sustained severe collateral damage, an UNRWA statement said.
The overall Palestinian death toll now exceeds 6500, the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said on Wednesday. Reuters has not been able to independently verify the casualty figures of either side in the war.
Israel had told civilians in the northern Gaza Strip, including residents of Gaza City, to move to the south of the enclave, saying it will be safer there as the military attacks Hamas following its October 7 cross-border assault.
However, Israeli warplanes have continued to hit sites in southern Gaza, spreading fear among the evacuees that they are just as vulnerable there as they were in their homes in the north.
Russia and China on Wednesday vetoed a US-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution on the war between Israel and Palestinian militants Hamas in the Gaza Strip, while a rival Russian-drafted text failed to win the minimum number of votes.
The US draft aimed to address a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, calling for pauses the violence to allow aid access. Only Russia, China, the UAE and Gabon voted in favour of the Russian draft, while nine members abstained and the United States and Britain voted no.
The United States proposed its own draft text on Saturday that initially shocked some diplomats with its bluntness in stating Israel has a right to defend itself and demanding Iran stop exporting arms to militant groups.
It then toned down the overall draft, removing direct references to Iran and to Israel’s right to self-defence.
But Russia announced on Tuesday that it could not support the US plan for action and put forward its own text.
President Vladimir Putin warned on Wednesday that Israel’s conflict with Hamas could spread well beyond the Middle East and said it was wrong that innocent women, children and old people in Gaza were being punished for other people’s crimes.
“Our task today, our main task, is to stop the bloodshed and violence,” said Putin, who is currently waging war on Ukraine, said according to a Kremlin transcript of the meeting.
Ready for invasion
Israeli tanks and troops are massed on the border with Gaza awaiting orders for an expected ground invasion amid growing international pressure on Israel to exercise restraint to avoid endangering more than 200 Israeli hostages in Gaza and enable aid to reach stricken Palestinian civilians in the enclave.
The Wall Street Journal, citing US and Israeli officials, reported later on Wednesday Israel had agreed to delay invading Gaza for now so that the United States could rush missile defences to the region to protect its forces there - reflecting its concern about the Gaza war spreading around the Middle East.
US officials have so far persuaded Israel to hold off until US air defence systems can be placed in the region, as early as this week, the WSJ said.
Asked about the report, US officials told Reuters that Washington has raised its concerns with Israel that Iran and Iranian-backed Islamist groups could escalate the conflict by attacking US troops in the Middle East. An Israeli incursion into Gaza could be a trigger for Iranian proxies, they said.
Later on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed that Israel was preparing an offensive into Gaza.
“We have already killed thousands of terrorists and this is only the beginning,” Netanyahu said in a televised statement.
“Simultaneously, we are preparing for a ground invasion. I will not elaborate on when, how or how many.”
The WSJ said Israel’s position was taking into account international efforts to get emergency aid unimpeded into Gaza as well as sensitive mediation by Gulf Arab state Qatar to free Israelis in Hamas captivity.
Israeli officials have increasingly signalled in public that a Gaza invasion could be imminent. None has given a hard date, however, or said there has been a postponement. Israel has called up a record 300,000 military reservists.
The Israeli-Hamas war has already kindled increased conflict well beyond Gaza.
Israeli warplanes struck Syrian army infrastructure in response to rockets fired from Syria, an ally of Iran.
Syrian state media said Israel had killed eight soldiers and wounded seven near the southwestern city of Deraa, and hit Aleppo airport in the northwest, already out of action.
Israel did not accuse the Syrian army of launching rockets but is suspicious of Iran, its arch-enemy which has a significant military and security presence in Syria.
Iran has sought regional ascendancy for decades and backs armed groups in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere as well as Hamas.
It has warned Israel to stop its onslaught on Gaza.
Israel said its forces also hit five squads in south Lebanon preparing attacks. Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group said 42 of its fighters had been killed since border clashes with Israel resumed after the Gaza war erupted.
Israeli-Hezbollah clashes have unnerved civilians on both sides of the border. Health officials said the death toll was soaring as Israeli jets pounded Gaza. Workers pulled dead and wounded civilians, including many children, out of landscapes of rubble in cities across the territory.
Al Jazeera said the wife, son and daughter of one of its correspondents in Gaza were killed on Wednesday night in an Israeli air strike that the Hamas-run enclave’s health ministry said killed at least 25 people.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military on the strike, which the network said hit the area where Wael al-Dahdouh’s family had fled to following an Israeli warning as it plans a Gaza ground incursion.
“Their home was targeted in the Nuseirat camp in the centre of Gaza, where they had sought refuge after being displaced by the initial bombardment in their neighborhood, following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for all civilians to move south,” Al Jazeera said in a statement.
Al Jazeera said other members of Dahdouh’s family were buried under the rubble. The network broadcast live footage of Dahdouh crying as he saw family members laying lifeless in hospital.
“The network strongly condemns the indiscriminate targeting and killing of innocent civilians in Gaza, which has led to the loss of Wael Al-Dahdouh’s family and countless others,” Al Jazeera said.
Palestinian sense of betrayal
Israel started its aerial blitz against Gaza after Hamas militants stormed southern Israeli towns in a shock infiltration on October 7, killing 1400 people, most of them civilians, and taking about 222 people hostage.
Gaza’s health ministry said at least 6546 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli bombardments since then, including 2704 children. Of the total, 756 had been killed in the previous 24 hours, half of them children, it said – even more than the 704 it reported on Tuesday.
Palestinian anger over civilian deaths have been inflamed further by a sense of betrayal as many of those who heeded Israel’s call to move south are also being killed. The Israeli military says that Hamas, which seized control in Gaza in 2007, has entrenched itself among the civilian population everywhere.
One overnight strike brought down several apartment buildings in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.
“This is something not normal, we have not heard something like this before,” said Khader Abu Odah, one of many shell-shocked residents waiting for an excavator to lift rubble so they could look for survivors.
Israel said its latest strikes had eliminated more Hamas operatives and including the head of the Islamist group’s battalion for Khan Younis, Tayseer Bebasher.
More coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict
- Cascading violence: Tremors from the Hamas attacks and Israel’s response have reached far beyond the border. But what would all-out war in the Middle East look like?
- The human cost: Hamas’ massacre in Israel has traumatised - and hardened - survivors. And in Gaza, neighbourhoods have become ghost cities.
- “Hamas metro”: Inside the labyrinthine network of underground tunnels, which the Palestinian militant group has commanded beneath war-ravaged Gaza for 16 years. The covert corridors have long provided essential channels for the movement of weapons and armed combatants.
- What is Hezbollah?: As fears of the conflict expanding beyond Israel and Hamas steadily rise, all eyes are on the militant group and political party that controls southern Lebanon and has been designated internationally as a terrorist group. How did it form and what does Iran have to do with it?
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