By Henriette Chacar, Dedi Hayun and Nidal al-Mughrabi
JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israel said on Thursday there would be no humanitarian exceptions to its siege of the Gaza Strip until all its hostages were freed after the Red Cross pleaded for fuel to be allowed in to prevent overwhelmed hospitals from “turning into morgues”.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv on a trip to show solidarity with Israel, help prevent the conflict from spreading and try to free hostages. Standing beside him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Thank you, America, for standing with Israel, today, tomorrow and always”.
Israel has vowed to annihilate the Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip, in retribution for the deadliest attack on civilians in its history when hundreds of gunmen crossed the barrier and rampaged through Israeli towns on Saturday.
ALSO READ: UK orders diplomats’ families to leave Israel over security concerns
Public broadcaster Kan said the Israeli death toll had risen to more than 1,300. Most were civilians gunned down in their homes, on the streets or at a dance party. Scores of Israeli and foreign hostages were taken back to Gaza; Israel says it has identified 97 of them.
The full scale of the killings has emerged in recent days after Israeli forces reclaimed control of towns, finding homes strewn with bodies. They say they found women who had been raped and killed and children who were shot and burned.
Israel has responded so far by putting Gaza, home to 2.3 million people, under total siege and launching by far the most powerful bombing campaign in the 75-year history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, destroying whole neighbourhoods.
Gaza authorities say 1,354 Palestinians have been killed and more than 6,000 have been wounded in the bombing.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said fuel powering emergency generators at hospitals in Gaza could run out within hours.
ALSO READ: With bulletproof vests, socks and soap, US Jews rush to aid Israel
“Without electricity, hospitals risk turning into morgues,” ICRC regional director Fabrizio Carboni said. “The human misery caused by this escalation is abhorrent, and I implore the sides to reduce the suffering of civilians.”
Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said there would be no exceptions to the siege without freedom for Israeli hostages.
“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 to us morals,” Katz posted on social media platform X.
BURYING THE DEAD
Standing beside Blinken after their meeting in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu praised U.S. President Joe Biden for remarks on Wednesday calling the Hamas attacks “sheer evil”. Biden also noted that the attacks were “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust”.
Blinken endorsed Netanyahu’s decision to bring some of his political opponents into a wartime unity cabinet and said the United States knew that Hamas did not represent the true aspirations of the Palestinian people.
Blinken will visit Jordan on Friday to meet King Abdullah and Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority which operates limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Abbas, a foe of Hamas, has not directly condemned Saturday’s attacks on Israel and has blamed the escalation on the neglect of Palestinian grievances.
Scores of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on Thursday to bury their dead.
“When you didn’t take my call, I knew you were fighting with all your power. When I realised you were missing, I could not imagine this is how it would end,” one mourner was heard saying, as families embraced.
At the hospital in Khan Younis, the main city in the south of the Gaza Strip, a woman tried to calm a weeping girl whose house had been hit. The girl kept screaming “My mother, I want my mother”.
“She is looking for her mother. We don’t know where she is,” said the woman who took the girl in her arms.
In Gaza’s Al Shati refugee camp, residents were sifting through rubble with their bare hands looking for survivors and bodies. Rescue workers say they lack fuel and equipment to dig victims out of collapsed buildings.
ALSO READ: Israel, Hezbollah exchange artillery, rocket fire
The United Nations says at least 340,000 Gazans have been made homeless in the past four days. Nearly 220,000 of them are sheltering in 92 U.N.-run schools.
At one school turned into a shelter, Hanan Al-Attar, 14, said her family had rushed out of their home with nothing but the clothes on their backs as bombs fell nearby. Her uncle went back to fetch some clothes and was killed when the house was hit.
“They are bombing the houses on top of civilians, women, and children,” said her grandfather.
Egypt, which has a single border crossing with Gaza, said it was trying to allow in aid there.
Israeli reservists – a substantial part of the fighting-aged population in a country with mandatory military service – were flocking home from abroad to join the battle.
“Everyone is coming. No one is saying no,” said Yonatan Steiner, 24, who flew back from New York, where he works for a tech company, to join his old army medical unit.
“This is different, this is unprecedented, the rules have changed,” he said, by phone from the border near Lebanon where his regiment is based.
Israel’s next move could be a ground assault on Gaza. No decision to invade has yet been made “but we’re preparing for it”, military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hecht said early on Thursday.
The war has torn up diplomacy in the region, just as Israel was preparing to reach an agreement to normalise ties with Saudi Arabia, the richest Arab power, and months after Riyadh resumed ties with its regional rival Iran, sponsor of Hamas.
Tehran has celebrated the Hamas attacks but denied being behind them. Biden said a deployment of military ships and aircraft closer to Israel should be seen as a signal to Iran to stay out of the conflict.