Israeli minister orders ‘complete siege’ of Gaza as death toll nears 1,200

Israel’s defence minister has ordered a “complete siege” on the Gaza Strip, saying authorities will cut electricity and block the entry of food and fuel.

Israel and Egypt have imposed various levels of blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

On Monday, Israel’s military scoured the country’s south for Hamas fighters and guarded breaches in its border fence with tanks, as it pounded the Gaza Strip from the air and mustered for a campaign its prime minister said will destroy “the military and governing capabilities” of the militant group.

More than two days after Hamas launched its unprecedented incursion from Gaza, the military said the fighting has largely died down for now.

The attack caught Israel’s military and intelligence apparatus completely off guard, bringing heavy battles to its streets for the first time in decades.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Civilians are already paying a high price. Around 700 people have been killed in Israel – a staggering toll by the scale of its recent conflicts, and nearly 500 have been killed in Gaza, a tiny, impoverished enclave of 2.3 million Palestinians bordering Israel and Egypt.

Palestinian militant groups claimed to be holding more than 130 captives from the Israeli side.

Chief military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters Israel has “control” of its border communities.

He said there had been some isolated incidents early on Monday, but that no fighting was going on.

He warned, however, that there could still be militants in the area and that forces are carrying out searches.

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Israeli soldiers on a tank near the Gaza border (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Earlier, Hamas spokesman Abdel-Latif al-Qanoua told the Associated Press that the group’s fighters continue to battle outside Gaza and had captured more Israelis as recently as Monday morning.

He said the group aims to free all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, which in the past has agreed to painful, lopsided exchange deals in which it released large numbers of prisoners for individual captives or even the remains of soldiers.

Meanwhile, Israel hit more than 1,000 targets in Gaza, its military said, including air strikes that flattened much of the town of Beit Hanoun in the enclave’s north-east corner.

Rear Admiral Hagari said Hamas is using the town as a staging ground for attacks.

There was no immediate word on casualties, and most of the community’s population of tens of thousands are likely to have fled beforehand.

He also provided the first official acknowledgement of the death toll, saying around 700 had been killed on the Israeli side.

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Palestinian civil defence crews try to extinguish a fire in a house hit by an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip (Yousef Masoud/AP)

“Our task is to make sure that Hamas will no longer have any military capabilities to threaten Israel,” said spokesman Jonathan Conricus in a video tweeted by Israel’s military. “And in addition to that, we will make sure that Hamas is no longer able to govern the Gaza Strip.”

Hamas is deeply rooted in Gaza and has ruled the territory since driving out forces loyal to the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority in 2007. Its rule has gone unchallenged through a 16-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade and four previous wars with Israel.

After breaking through Israeli barriers with explosives at daybreak on Saturday, Hamas gunmen rampaged for hours, gunning down civilians and snatching people in towns, along highways and at a techno music festival attended by thousands in the desert.

Palestinian militants have also launched around 4,400 rockets at Israel, according to the military.

The Israeli military estimated 1,000 Hamas fighters took part in Saturday’s initial incursion.

The high figure underlined the extent of planning by the militant group, which has said it launched the attack in response to mounting Palestinian suffering under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its blockade of Gaza, its discriminatory policies in annexed east Jerusalem, and tensions around a disputed Jerusalem holy site sacred to Muslims and Jews.

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Israelis inspect a damaged residential building in Ashkelon which was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip (Erik Marmor/AP)

Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group claim to have taken captive more than 130 people from inside Israel and moved them into Gaza.

The captives are known to include soldiers and civilians, including women, children and older adults, mostly Israelis but also some people of other nationalities. The Israeli military has said only that the number of captives is “significant”.

The Israeli military was evacuating at least five towns close to Gaza, while the United Nations said more than 123,000 Gazans have been displaced by the fighting.

In Gaza, residents feared further escalation.

As of late on Sunday, Israeli air strikes had destroyed 159 housing units across the territory and severely damaged 1,210 others, the UN said.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said a school sheltering more than 225 people took a direct hit. It did not say where the fire came from.

In the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, an Israeli air strike early on Monday killed 19 people, including women and children, said Talat Barhoum, a doctor at the local Al-Najjar Hospital.

He said aircraft hit the home of the Abu Hilal family, and that one of those killed was Rafaat Abu Hilal, a leader of a local armed group. The strike caused damage to surrounding homes.

Over the weekend, another air strike on a home in Rafah killed 19 members of the Abu Quta family, including women and children, survivors said.

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Palestinian civil defence staff look through a house hit by an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip (Yousef Masoud/AP)

The Gaza Health Ministry said 493 people, including 78 children and 41 women, were killed in the territory. Thousands have been wounded on both sides.

An Israeli official said security forces have killed 400 militants and captured dozens more.

An Egyptian official said Israel sought help from Cairo to ensure the safety of the hostages.

Egypt also spoke with both sides about a potential ceasefire, but Israel was not open to a truce “at this stage”, according to the official.

On Sunday, the US dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean to be ready to assist Israel, and said it will send additional military aid.

In northern Israel, a brief exchange of strikes with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group fanned fears that the fighting could expand into a wider regional war. The Israeli military said the situation was calm after the exchange.

Elsewhere, six Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers around the West Bank on Sunday.

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