Concerns about the risk of wider Middle East conflict triggered by the Israel-Hamas war rose on Sunday with the US dispatching more military assets to the region as Israel pummelled targets in Gaza and Hamas supporters in Lebanon and Syria.
* Israel adds 14 communities to evacuation plan in the north of the country near Lebanon and Syria
* Hamas’ armed wing said it fires more rockets at Tel Aviv
* Israel, in renewed warning to Gazans to move from north to south of enclave, says those who don’t will be seen as ‘terrorist’ sympathisers
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
GAZA/JERUSALEM – Concerns about the risk of wider Middle East conflict triggered by the Israel-Hamas war rose on Sunday with the US dispatching more military assets to the region as Israel pummelled targets in Gaza and Hamas supporters in Lebanon and Syria.
Medical sources in Gaza said more than 50 Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes overnight on the enclave, to which Israel laid “total siege” after a cross-border October 7 rampage by Hamas militants that has traumatised Israelis.
In neighbouring Syria – where Hamas’s main regional backer Iran has a military presence – Israeli missiles hit Damascus and Aleppo international airports early on Sunday, killing at least two workers, according to Syrian state media.
In south Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah has been exchanging cross-border fire with Israel in support of Hamas, Israel said its aircraft bombed Hezbollah targets on Saturday. Hezbollah said six of its fighters were killed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister that the Lebanese population would be affected if his country were drawn into the Israeli-Hamas war, the State Department said.
With violence around its borders increasing, Israel on Sunday added 14 communities close to Lebanon and Syria to its evacuation plan in the north of the country.
Israel began unrelenting air strikes on Gaza to its south-west after Hamas gunmen breached the border and carried out a shock rampage through nearby communities, killing 1,400 people, mainly civilians, and taking 212 hostages back to Gaza.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said on Saturday that Israel’s air and missile strikes in retaliation had killed at least 4,385 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, with more than a million of the tiny territory’s 2.3 million people displaced.
US BEEFING UP MILITARY PRESENCE
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington would send more military assets to the Middle East in support of Israel and strengthen the US defence posture in the region following “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces” – a reference to Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist militants.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and additional Patriot air defence missile system battalions will be sent to the region and more troops put on standby, Austin said.
Washington has already deployed a significant amount of naval power to the Middle East in recent weeks, including two aircraft carriers, their support ships and about 2,000 Marines.
Drones and rockets targeted two military bases housing US forces in Iraq last week, the latest in a series of attacks after Iraqi militants warned Washington against intervening to support Israel against Hamas in Gaza.
Israel has amassed tanks and troops near the fenced border around Gaza for a planned ground invasion aiming to annihilate Hamas, after several inconclusive wars dating to its seizure of power there in 2007, after Israel ended a 38-year occupation.
“We are going to go into the Gaza Strip… to destroy Hamas operatives and Hamas infrastructure,” Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi told troops on Saturday.
Elaborating on Israel’s strategy in remarks to Fox TV on Sunday, military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said it was “to have a weakened, tired and dislocated Hamas in preparation for our next stage of military operations.”
“Our working assumption,” he said, “is that Hamas has prepared the battlefield, that there are various dimensions of warfare ready for us – specifically tunnels – and that Hamas, at least in the first and the intermediate stages, will fight and will inflict heavy casualties on (Israeli forces).”
Hamas’ armed wing said it had fired rockets at Tel Aviv on Sunday. There was no immediate word of damage or casualties.
With Israel keeping up daily bombardments that laid waste to swathes of the densely populated enclave, Palestinians said they received renewed Israeli military warnings to move from Gaza’s north to the south to avoid the deadliest theatre of the war.
They said military leaflets dropped on the narrow territory, just 45km (28 miles) long, contained the added warning that they could be identified as sympathisers with a “terrorist organisation” if they stayed put.
“For your own safety, move southward. We will continue to attack in the area of Gaza City and increase attacks,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Hagari said on Saturday.
Gazans say making the journey south remains highly risky amid air strikes and that southern areas have also been bombed.
Many families who left Gaza to the south said they had lost relatives during Israeli air strikes in the south.
RISING WEST BANK VIOLENCE
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where violence has also surged, Israeli aircraft struck a compound beneath a mosque in the Jenin refugee camp early on Sunday that the military said was being used by Palestinian militants to organise attacks.
Israeli forces killed a fifth Palestinian in the West Bank overnight, bringing the number of deaths there to 90 since the war began, the Palestinian health ministry said on Sunday.
The first humanitarian aid convoy allowed into Gaza since war erupted arrived through its southern Rafah border crossing from Egypt on Saturday. The United Nations said the 20-truck convoy brought life-saving supplies that would be received by the Palestinian Red Crescent.
But the UN humanitarian office said the volume of goods that entered was just 4% of the daily average of imports into Gaza before the hostilities and a fraction of what was needed in the enclave, where most people are reliant on humanitarian aid.
US President Joe Biden, long a firm supporter of Israel, cheered the arrival of the aid after days of intense negotiations. He said the United States was committed to more negotiations to ensure more aid gets to Palestinians running out of food, water, medicines and fuel in Gaza.
A deadly explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza on Tuesday was likely caused by an errant rocket fired from Gaza, not an Israeli air strike, Canada’s defence department said, reaching similar conclusions to Israel, the US and France.