By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel intensified its overnight bombing of southern Gaza, where officials said record numbers of Palestinians were killed again, as violence flared elsewhere in the Middle East and a showdown loomed at the U.N. on Wednesday over desperately needed aid.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled from north to south in the tiny, crowded enclave after Israel warned them it would bombard the north, including Gaza City, to wipe out Hamas after its killing and kidnapping spree in Israel on Oct. 7.
The Palestinian death toll now exceeds 6,500, Gaza’s health ministry said on Wednesday. Reuters was unable to independently verify the ministry’s figures.
Sami Al-Bayouk resorted to a donkey and cart to carry away one of six family members killed in an overnight air strike on Khan Younis in Gaza’s south. “Death is everywhere,” he said.
Palestinian anger over the toll has 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 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 including the head of the Islamist group’s battalion for Khan Younis, Tayseer Bebasher.
It said Hamas tunnel shafts, command centres, weapons caches and rocket launch positions were targeted, plus a cell of Hamas divers trying to infiltrate Israel by sea near Kibbutz Zikim.
In Gaza City, rescue workers pulled an apparently lifeless young child out of rubble before trying to calm an agitated, partially buried man crying out his family’s names.
“They are OK, I swear,” one rescuer said in video footage from the scene.
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 next stage of action…will come,” Israeli government spokeswoman Tal Heinrich told Fox News. “We are consulting with international partners…and we will make the right decisions at the right time…(and) act decisively and judiciously”.
FIGHTING IN LEBANON, SYRIA FUELS REGION’S FEARS
Israeli warplanes also struck Syrian army infrastructure in response to rockets fired from Syria, an ally of Iran, the Israeli military said. The strike stoked concerns that its war with Iran-backed Hamas will ignite the wider region.
Syrian state media said Israel had killed eight soldiers and wounded seven more 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.
“You don’t know what will happen in a few days. You just wait,” said Rabab Yousef, a 57-year-old mother who lost a daughter under the rubble of an Israeli air strike in 2006.
U.S. AND RUSSIA AT ODDS OVER AID CALLS
The United States and Russia are leading rival calls at the United Nations for a pause in fighting to allow aid into Gaza, where living conditions are harrowing with medical care crippled due to a lack of electricity, and food and clean water scarce.
Limited deliveries of food, medicine and water from Egypt restarted on Saturday through Rafah, the only crossing not controlled by Israel, which announced it had sealed off the coastal enclave for good after this month’s attack from Hamas.
U.N. agencies say more than 20 times as much are needed by the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million people, even in peacetime.
In proposals the U.N. Security Council was expected to consider on Wednesday, the United States is seeking short pauses to allow aid in while Russia advocates a wider ceasefire. Israel has resisted both, arguing that Hamas would only take advantage and create new threats to its civilians.
Germany said it had confidence in U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres after Israel demanded his replacement following comments that international law was being violated in Gaza, where he said at least 35 U.N. staff had been killed.
Israel started its aerial blitz against Gaza after Hamas militants stormed southern Israeli towns in a shock infiltration on Oct. 7, killing 1,400 people, most of them civilians, and taking some 222 people hostage.
Gaza’s health ministry said at least 6,546 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli bombardments since then, including 2,704 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.
Clashes have also intensified in the occupied West Bank, where the Israeli military has killed more than 100 Palestinians, the Palestinian health ministry said.
Qatar, which is leading mediation talks in coordination with the United States, urged both sides to de-escalate and warned that an Israeli ground assault on the densely-populated enclave would make freeing hostages much more difficult.
Hamas has released a mother and daughter with dual U.S.-Israel nationality and two Israeli women.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Emily Rose, Yusri Mohammed, Andrew Mills, Paul Grant, Michelle Nichols and Humeyra Pamuk; writing by Philippa Fletcher and Mark Heinrich; editing by Kevin Liffey and Angus MacSwan)