By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told troops gathered at the Gaza border on Thursday that they would soon see the Palestinian enclave “from inside”, suggesting an expected ground invasion with the aim of annihilating Hamas could be nearing.
Israel pounded Gaza with more air strikes on Thursday over the Oct. 7 rampage by Hamas gunmen who killed 1,400 Israelis.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak followed U.S. President Joe Biden with a visit to demonstrate Western support for the war against Hamas militants. Sunak also met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who called the targeting of Gaza civilians “heinous.”
Israel has put the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million people under siege and bombarded the enclave in strikes that have killed thousands and made more than a million homeless.
In Gaza’s north, footage obtained by Reuters from the Jabaliya refugee camp showed residents digging with their bare hands inside a damaged building to free a small boy and girl trapped under masonry. The body of a man was also pulled out.
“You see Gaza now from a distance, you will soon see it from inside. The command will come,” Gallant told soldiers. Troops were not expected to enter while foreign leaders were visiting.
Shortly after Gallant’s statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video of himself with troops near the border promising victory.
“All the indications are that the worst is coming,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told reporters in Amman.
Biden scheduled a televised address for 8 p.m. ET on Thursday (0000 GMT on Friday) about the conflicts in Israel and Ukraine, underscoring “how support from the American people and the Congress, frankly, is essential,” an aide said. Biden was expected to propose billions more dollars in aid to the two countries.
The president visited Israel briefly on Wednesday in the turmoil after a Gaza hospital explosion that Palestinians blamed on an Israeli air strike but that Israel said was caused by a failed rocket launch by Palestinian militants. Biden backed the Israeli account.
An unclassified U.S. intelligence report, seen by Reuters on Thursday, estimated that the death toll from the hospital blast was “probably at the low end of the 100 to 300 spectrum,” but added that the assessment may evolve. It said only light structural damage had been observed at the hospital.
Palestinian officials had said 471 people were killed in the blast at Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital late on Tuesday, and Israel’s foreign ministry said “dozens” of people died.
In a statement, Hamas reported an explosion on Thursday at the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City where Christians were taking shelter. Hamas reported “huge damage” and “many casualties” at the church dating to the 12th century.
It said Israel had attacked the church, but Reuters was not immediately able to independently confirm a strike nor assess damage, and Israel did not comment on the incident. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said targeting the church “constitutes a war crime.”
In his attempt to get aid into Gaza, Biden had only limited success during his visit, brokering agreement with Israel and Egypt for 20 trucks. Two Egyptian security sources said equipment was sent on Thursday through its border crossing to repair roads on the Gaza side. More than 100 trucks were waiting in Egypt.
The crossing has been out of operation since the first days of the conflict and Israeli bombardments on the Palestinian side of the border.
While some officials expected aid to enter Gaza on Friday, the newly appointed U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield was still meeting Israeli and Egyptian officials to “negotiate the exact modalities” of that agreement, the State Department said.
FLASHPOINTS BEYOND GAZA
The hospital explosion and anticipated ground invasion has heightened fears of the conflict spreading.
The Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said it fired rockets at an Israeli position in the village of Manara on Thursday and drew an Israeli artillery barrage in response after the worst escalation in violence on the border in 17 years.
The Israeli military said at least 20 rockets and an anti-tank missile had been fired from Lebanon. A Lebanese civilian was killed in the area, Lebanese security sources and the UN peacekeeping force said.
Amid concerns the West Bank could become a third front in a wider war, 12 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces in the Nur Shams refugee camp in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, the Palestinian Red Crescent said on Thursday.
Separately, the Pentagon said a U.S. Navy warship intercepted three cruise missiles and several drones launched by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement from Yemen potentially toward Israel.
The spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing, Abu Obeida, on Al Jazeera called for anti-Israel rallies across Arab and Muslim countries on Friday and said the group was prepared for a long battle with Israel.
‘THEY KILLED CHILDREN!’
According to Palestinian health officials, the toll from Israeli strikes on Gaza has risen to more than 3,500 dead and more than 12,000 wounded.
In Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip men rushed to the main Nasser hospital carrying dead and wounded children in their arms, in ambulances and the back of a flatbed truck after a bomb struck a house.
Medics said four people were killed and many wounded, mainly displaced children from northern Gaza who had been playing soccer in a lot next door.
“I saw body parts, dismembered children, what shall I describe to you?” said Hassan Al-Hindi, a neighbour who saw the strike. “They killed children,” he cried.
Gaza residents scoffed at the gesture of limited truckloads of aid for 2.3 million people cut off from food, water, fuel and medical supplies.
“We want nothing from Arab and foreign countries except to stop the violent bombardment on our houses,” said El-Awad El-Dali, 65, speaking near ruined homes.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Washington and Jerusalem Bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff, Alexandra Hudson and Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Nick Macfie, Alison Williams and Howard Goller)