The conflict between Israel and Hamas continued to get deadlier, and humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip became yet more scarce on Tuesday, as the Palestinian territory reported its highest daily death toll of the war so far.
Israel kept up its siege and non-stop air strikes on Hamas-ruled Gaza. Hamas, meanwhile, launched its most audacious assaults on Israel since its deadly cross-border invasion on Oct. 7.
The ministry of health in Gaza said Tuesday that 704 people had been killed in the strip over the previous 24 hours. The Israeli military said it had hit more than 400 Hamas targets in waves of air strikes meant to prepare the way for an anticipated ground invasion of Gaza. Hamas retaliated by firing a massive barrage of rockets Tuesday afternoon, setting off sirens and sending residents running for cover in Tel Aviv and the southern city of Beersheba. The militant group said the barrage was “in response to the massacres against civilians.”
Two Israelis were injured by falling debris after the Hamas rockets were intercepted by Israeli air defences. Three others were hurt while scrambling to shelter. One rocket got through and struck a building in Alfei Menashe, an illegal Jewish settlement built on Palestinian territory in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hamas also claimed via its Telegram channel that a group of its “frogmen” had infiltrated southern Israel by landing on a beach near the southern port of Ashkelon. The Israeli military said it had rebuffed the assault, killing several Hamas fighters, though Israeli media reported late Tuesday that gunfire was still audible in the area. Two other rockets were launched from Syria toward the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israeli artillery replied by targeting the launch sites.
In recent days, Israel has allowed a trickle of aid – though no fuel – through the siege of Gaza’s 2.3 million citizens. Since Friday, Hamas has released four of the more than 200 hostages it has been holding, including an 85-year-old Israeli woman who shook her captor’s hand and said “shalom,” a Hebrew word of greeting or farewell that also means “peace,” before she left Gaza on Monday night.
But peace doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. Just eight aid trucks were allowed into Gaza on Tuesday, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. On Monday, rumours of a larger-scale hostage release failed to materialize.
Instead, it’s the fighting that has again gained pace. Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute in Tel Aviv, said Tuesday’s Hamas attacks would have limited political impact because no Israelis were killed. But any new Israeli fatalities would have increased the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accelerate plans for a ground invasion of Gaza.
The single deadliest day of the war remains Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters blew up the border barrier between Gaza and Israel in multiple locations and went on a rampage through the nearby communities. More than 1,400 Israelis were either killed that day or later succumbed to their injuries, according to the Israeli government. Gaza’s health ministry says at least 5,791 Palestinians have died since the start of the war.
Prof. Hermann said Israel’s “very basic sense of security” has been broken. Polling by the Israel Democracy Institute after the attacks found 48 per cent of Israelis believed their military should not take Palestinian suffering into account in its response, while an additional 36 per cent believed Gaza’s humanitarian situation should factor “not so much” into military planning.
Some 360,000 Israeli troops were mobilized in the aftermath, and they have repeatedly been told by their leaders that a Gaza invasion looms. American and Israeli media have reported that Israel is holding off on the attack at the request of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, which is seeking clarity about Israel’s plans for Gaza. The U.S. also reportedly needs more time to move military equipment to the Middle East, in case the conflict expands to include Hamas’s allies in the region, most notably Iran.
“Yesterday, in our attacks in Gaza, we struck the enemy the harshest blow they have taken in a single day. We killed dozens of terrorists, possibly even more,” Mr. Netanyahu told ground troops stationed near the strip on Tuesday. “We stand before the next stage. It is coming. You know it and you are part of it; you are part of the vanguard.”
While the Israeli army idles, Hamas continues to prepare its defences in Gaza, and humanitarian conditions worsen in the densely populated strip, which is 10 kilometres wide and wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.
Tuesday’s slowdown in aid deliveries came after 54 trucks had entered Gaza via Egypt over the previous three days. These trucks have been the only humanitarian vehicles to enter the territory since the Oct. 7 attacks. Before the war, there were normally hundreds per day.
Mr. Biden, asked by journalists whether humanitarian aid was reaching Gaza at a sufficient pace, replied: “Not fast enough.”
The U.S. and the UN have pushed for fuel to be included in aid deliveries, in order to allow Gaza’s hospitals to function and for water to be pumped. But an Israeli army spokesperson, Daniel Hagari, reiterated on Tuesday that fuel will not be permitted. The military says fuel would allow Hamas to maintain its attacks on Israel.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, warned Tuesday that it will be forced to halt operations on Wednesday night if it does not receive fuel.
“Fuel is extremely urgent, because without fuel the trucks themselves cannot move,” UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifai told a briefing on Tuesday. “Without fuel, the generators cannot produce electricity for hospitals, for bakeries and for the water desalination plants.”
A critical fuel shortage in Gaza is among the factors that have forced many of the territory’s hospitals to close. “One-third of hospitals now are not functioning, just at the time when the medical burden is enormous,” said Rick Brennan, regional emergency director for the World Health Organization in the Eastern Mediterranean region. “Around two-thirds of clinics are non-functioning.”
“It is getting worse every day,” Muhammad Smiry, a Gaza resident who has been posting on social media since the start of the war, told The Globe and Mail in an exchange of messages. “With time everything becomes harder regarding water, fuel, electricity, medicine, etc. Also, the bombing never stopped. Everything is a crisis.”
Israel has said it will maintain its siege of Gaza until Hamas releases all the hostages it is holding. Hamas has signalled a willingness to release more of the women, children and foreigners it captured on Oct. 7, but says it will only do so when Israel agrees to a humanitarian ceasefire. Hamas has said it won’t release those it believes to be Israeli soldiers until Israel frees the roughly 6,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails.
Yocheved Lifshitz, the 85-year-old Israeli grandmother who was released from captivity on Monday – and turned around to say shalom to the gunmen who let her go – told a news conference that she “went through hell” during the two weeks she was held by Hamas.
She said she was carried into Gaza draped across the back of a motorbike, and that her captors hit her with sticks as she and the other hostages were being led through a “spider’s web” of tunnels under Gaza. She said the hostages – at least those she was with – were later treated well, and had access to food, medicines and a doctor.
Ms. Lifshitz’s husband, Oded, an 83-year-old journalist and peace activist, is believed to be among the 222 remaining Hamas hostages.