The unprecedented incursion has left the region reeling, upending a years-long stalemate between Israel and Hamas, which effectively rules the Gaza Strip and its population of more than 2 million civilians. Israeli leaders are foreshadowing a ground invasion that seeks to change the status quo forever — in marked contrast to past incursions that left Hamas in place.
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said in a televised briefing Thursday that Israel would no longer allow Hamas to exist as an entity next door.
“Unlike other operations, we are collapsing the governance and sovereignty of the Hamas organization,” he said. Israel has mobilized 360,000 reservists in recent days and armored divisions are massing near the border with Gaza.
The toll in Gaza from six days of airstrikes had reached 1,417 killed, including 447 children and 248 women, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry — rapidly approaching the more than 2,000 killed in the 2014 war even before the start of the ground invasion. More than 338,000 people have left their homes in search of safety, but there is little to be had. Both of the territory’s exits, into Israel and Egypt, are closed.
Humanitarian groups are issuing increasingly dire warnings about the consequences of a military campaign in a densely populated urban area already throttled by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade that prevents many goods from entering the territory and most people from ever leaving.
Doctors Without Borders described conditions in Gaza’s hospitals as “catastrophic.” As local authorities said that the enclave’s main power plant had now run out of fuel, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that “without electricity, hospitals risk turning into morgues.”
“We know what it was like in 2014 and in 2021, thousands died. Each time, our medical colleagues go to work, not knowing if they will see their homes or their families again,” said Matthias Kennes, the head of the mission for Doctors Without Borders in Gaza. “This time, after five days, there have already been 1,200 deaths. What can people do? Where are they supposed to go?”
Israel has not let any goods into Gaza since airstrikes began, describing the intended conditions as total siege — a tactic outlawed under international law. On Thursday, Israel’s energy minister, Israel Katz, doubled down on that threat, saying there would be no pause in the siege unless Hamas released the hostages that are believed to be in Gaza.
“Humanitarian aid to Gaza? No electrical switch will be lifted, no water hydrant will be opened and no fuel truck will enter until the Israeli hostages are returned home. Humanitarian for humanitarian. And nobody should preach us morals,” he posted on the social media platform X, previously known as Twitter.
Hagari said Thursday that the army had notified the families of the 97 Israelis being held captive by the militants. Relatives said that the group — which includes women and young children — had been abducted from their homes and from a music festival and driven into the Gaza Strip.
Most learned the news not from officials, but from the internet. Some recognized their loved ones in videos circulating on social media. Others tracked their journeys from southern Israel across the border into the Gaza Strip using cellphone location data.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it stood ready to help. “We have people on the ground, and we are ready to play our role of neutral intermediary and contribute to release of these people,” regional director Fabrizio Carbone told reporters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv on Thursday in a show of support for Israel. “The message that I bring to Israel is this: You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself, but as long as America exists, you will never, ever have to,” he said from a podium in Tel Aviv, where he stood side by side with Netanyahu.
The United States is “working closely with Israel to secure the release of the men, women, children, elderly people, taken hostage by Hamas,” Blinken said. Fourteen Americans were unaccounted for by Thursday, according to the White House.
In Netanyahu’s third term as prime minister, he’s leading the most hawkish and religiously conservative government in Israeli history. It’s been mired in crisis since he returned to office last year.
Beholden to the most extreme elements within his coalition, he has been the target of mass street protests over proposed legislation to weaken the Supreme Court, and criticism from the White House over a decision to allow a hard line Jewish settler movement to build thousands of new homes in occupied territories sought by the Palestinians for a future state.
As he builds the case for intensifying war in Gaza, he has formed an emergency government with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and rival Benny Gantz.
On Thursday, the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper praised that decision and urged Netanyahu to distance himself from political allies who have used genocidal language to advocate for the erasure of Palestinian communities.
“A nation that looks out for itself would push such people to the margins of society,” the newspaper editorialized. “Even yesterday, [National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir] continued to incite for civil war because for him, what’s happening now is just an opportunity to promote his dreams.”
Netanyahu’s office on Thursday published photos that purported to show the corpses of babies shot and burned during the Hamas incursion into Israel, part of what appeared to be part of a broader push to build diplomatic support for a ground invasion of Gaza.
Palestinian media channels, meanwhile, aired photographs described as showing the corpses of babies and young children, some now unrecognizable, being pulled from rubble.
Any ground operation now is expected to be longer, bloodier and larger than the last one, in 2014, and would likely be aimed in part at destroying Hamas’s extensive underground tunnel network. In that war, troops just focused on the outskirts of urban areas. But the Israeli military insists this time that the soldiers will not hesitate to enter even the most densely packed areas, where the hostages are believed to be held.
Airstrikes have already been wider than in the past, and the army has abandoned engagement rules like “roof knocks,” a tactic by which the Israeli air force delivers warnings by firing nonexplosive or low yield devices on buildings before destroying them.
During past conflicts, Israel has proclaimed repeated successes in assassinating leaders and bombing training grounds, rocket factories and other facilities associated with Hamas and other militant groups in the enclave like Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But after the cease-fires, it has also watched as those groups rebuilt their reserves and new leaders arose.
Even if an invasion unfolds, Israel wants to avoid the reoccupation of Gaza, which promises to be costly and prolonged, said Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence. Israel has superior weaponry, but Hamas has knowledge of the dense urban landscape and a sophisticated tunnel system, that it has been digging for years.
Yadlin said that Israel sought to remove Hamas from Gaza, then transfer it to the Palestinian Authority, or another Arab entity, but would retain its right to still counter Palestinian militant buildup there, as it does in the West Bank.
“Whoever wants Gaza will get it,” he said. “We don’t want to rule 2 million Palestinians.”
Hamas, which is widely believed to have sought this conflict in an effort to stymie the regionwide process of normalization with Israel and raise its profile, has welcomed a ground war — despite the untold suffering it would cause.
“We’re actually waiting for [an Israeli ground invasion] because we can’t confront the American fighter jets from the skies,” senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk said in an interview with the Economist on Wednesday. “But we have tough men on the ground, they can confront any threat.”
Loveluck reported from London. Leo Sands and Ellen Francis in London contributed to this report.