Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza Tuesday, driving tanks and armoured bulldozers through the rubble of shattered buildings and hunting for Hamas militants who carried out the worst attack in Israel’s history.
Army footage showed soldiers, who are also seeking to free at least 240 hostages, advancing through a devastated landscape, with buildings reduced to a mangled mess of stone and twisted metal by weeks of relentless Israeli bombing.
Israel said it had struck 300 targets in the fourth night of land operations in Gaza, coming under Hamas anti-tank and machine-gun fire, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed growing international calls for a ceasefire.
AFPTV footage over Gaza showed a huge plume of smoke billowing up from another Israeli strike. The bombing campaign has killed 8,306 people, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, many of them children.
Images taken by AFP reporters in Gaza showed Palestinians combing the rubble in a desperate search for survivors, and praying over the bodies over those killed, wrapped in white shrouds.
Netanyahu said pausing operations now would be a “surrender” to the Palestinian militant group responsible for brutal raids on Israeli homes, farms and villages that killed an estimated 1,400 people and saw at least 240 hostages taken according to the latest count given by Israeli officials.
But the humanitarian toll has sparked a global backlash, with aid groups and the United Nations saying time is running out for many of the territory’s 2.4 million people denied access to food, water, fuel and medicine.
Surgeons are conducting amputations and other operations on hospital floors without anaesthetic, and children are forced to drink salty water, said Jean-Francois Corty, vice-president of Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has 20 staff on the ground.
Rizk Abu Rok, a 24-year-old paramedic with the Palestinian Red Crescent, told AFP he arrived at the scene of a strike at a cafe only to find his father and several other relatives dead.
“I rushed to the emergency room and found my father there. He had a head wound. I knew immediately that he was dead,” he said.
“I collapsed and lost my nerve. The nurses brought me outside to calm me down.”
Israel has accused Hamas of using hospitals as military headquarters and civilians as “human shields”, charges the militants dismiss as “baseless” propaganda.
‘It’s really hell’
The incursion scored an early victory Monday: the rescue of Private Ori Megidish, an Israeli soldier in Hamas who was reunited with her family and provided “intelligence that we’ll be able to use for future operations,” said army spokesman Jonathan Conricus.
But there was heartbreak for the family of another missing woman, 23-year-old German-Israeli Shani Louk, who had been abducted from a music festival then “tortured and paraded around Gaza,” according to Israel’s foreign ministry.
In the aftermath, images circulated of a young woman lying face down and nearly naked in the back of a pick-up truck filled with armed men.
Louk’s family said they recognised Shani because of her dreadlocks and distinctive tattoos, but had held out hope she had survived despite her injuries.
Her remains were found on Monday, with her sister Adi voicing her “great sorrow” as she shared news of her death on social media.
Other families have endured an unbearable wait for news about loved-ones kidnapped by Hamas militants and thought to be held in a labyrinth of tunnels in Gaza.
Hadas Kalderon walked through the scorched homes of the Nir Oz kibbutz, near Israel’s border with Gaza, where gunmen killed her mother and niece and seized her 12-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter.
“I don’t have any control and knowledge about army actions, I just know my children are still there in the middle of a war,” said the 56-year-old.
“It’s a disaster. It’s really hell. There is no word to express this.”
Hamas on Monday released a video of what it said were three women hostages, seated against a tile wall. One urged Israel to agree to a Hamas-demanded prisoner swap.
Netanyahu dismissed the clip, the time and place of which could not be verified, as “cruel psychological propaganda”.
‘It’s extremely slow’
As even Israel’s staunchest allies voiced concern about the dire humanitarian crisis in southern Gaza, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA said there was not nearly enough aid to meet the “unprecedented” needs.
Hisham Adwan, Gaza director of the Rafah crossing with Egypt where some aid has been allowed in, said 36 trucks had been waiting there since the previous day.
“I feel that it’s extremely slow and there’s disruption to UNRWA’s work, and we don’t know why,” he said.
Israel said it is inspecting cargo to make sure weapons are not being smuggled in, and is monitoring to guarantee supplies are not seized by Hamas.
Meanwhile, fears are mounting the violence could spiral into a broader regional war, with the White House warning Israel’s enemies — in particular Iran-allied groups — not to get involved.
Lebanese caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati has told AFP it was his “duty to prevent Lebanon from entering the war”.
But Israel’s military has struck targets in Syria and traded cross-border fire with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, insisting Israel has a duty to defend civilians.
Anis Abla, head of the Civil Defense Centre in Marjayoun, near the Israeli border, said they were completely unprepared for war.
“Our equipment is very primitive and there is a shortage of all tools, such as fire suits and extinguisher cylinders,” he told AFP.