As strikes devastate Gaza, Israel forms unity government to oversee war sparked by Hamas attack

Israel gaza
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Wednesday, Oct. 11.
AP Photo/Fatima Shbair

By JOSEPH KRAUSS and WAFAA SHURAFA Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined with a top political rival on Wednesday to create a war-time Cabinet overseeing the fight to avenge a stunning weekend attack by Hamas militants. In the sealed-off Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas, Palestinian suffering mounted as Israeli bombardment demolished neighborhoods and the only power plant ran out of fuel.

The new Cabinet establishes a degree of unity after years of bitterly divisive politics, and as the Israeli military appears increasingly likely to launch a ground offensive into Gaza. The war has already claimed at least 2,300 lives on both sides.

The Israeli government is under intense public pressure to topple Hamas after its militants stormed through a border fence Saturday and massacred hundreds of Israelis in their homes, on the streets and at an outdoor music festival.

In a televised address Wednesday night, Netanyahu detailed atrocities that took place during the attack. “We saw boys and girls bound, who were shot in the head. Men and women burned alive. Young women who were raped and slaughtered. Soldiers who were beheaded,” he said.

Militants in Gaza are holding an estimated 150 people taken hostage from Israel — soldiers, men, women, children and older adults — and they have fired thousands of rockets into Israel over the past five days.

The Cabinet, which will focus only on issues of war, will be led by Netanyahu, Benny Gantz — a senior opposition figure and former defense minister — and current Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. A former chief of a staff and another government minister were named as “observer” members.

Still, Israel’s political divisions remain. The country’s chief opposition leader, Yair Lapid, was invited to join the Cabinet but did not immediately respond to the offer. It appeared that the rest of Netanyahu’s existing government partners, a collection of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, would remain in place to handle non-war issues.

Israel’s increasingly destructive airstrikes in Gaza have flattened entire city blocks and left unknown numbers of bodies beneath debris. A ground offensive in Gaza, whose 2.3 million residents are densely packed into a tiny, coastal strip, would likely result in a surge of casualties for fighters on both sides.

Hamas launched a fresh barrage of rockets into Israel on Wednesday aimed at the southern town of Ashkelon.

Some 250,000 people have fled their homes in Gaza, most crowding into U.N. schools. Others sought the shrinking number of safe neighborhoods in the strip of land only 25 miles long, wedged among Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

After nightfall, Palestinians were plunged into pitch blackness in large parts of Gaza City and elsewhere after the territory’s only power station ran out of fuel and shut down Wednesday. Only a few lights from private generators still glowed.

Israel on Sunday halted the entry of food, water, fuel and medicine into the territory. The sole remaining crossing from Egypt was shut down Tuesday after airstrikes hit nearby.

The Gaza Strip’s biggest hospital, Al-Shifa, only has enough fuel to keep power on for three days, said Matthias Kannes, a Gaza-based official for Doctors Without Borders. The group said the two hospitals it runs in Gaza were running out of surgical equipment, antibiotics, fuel and other supplies. “We consumed three weeks worth of emergency stock in three days,” Kannes said.

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a reconstructive surgeon at al-Shifa said he had 50 patients waiting to go to the operating room as more critical wounded are treated. “We’re already beyond the capacity of the system to cope,” he said. The health system “has the rest of the week before it collapses, not just because of the diesel. All supplies are running short.”

The Palestinian Red Crescent said other hospitals’ generators will run out in five days. Residential buildings, unable to store as much diesel, likely will go dark sooner.

Egypt and international groups have been calling for humanitarian corridors to get aid into Gaza. Convoys stood loaded with fuel and food Wednesday on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, but were unable to enter Gaza, an Egyptian security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

In Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, rescue workers and civilians carried men covered with blood and soot towards ambulances after strikes toppled buildings. Streets were left blanketed with metal, chunks of concrete and thick dust.

Medical teams and rescuers struggled to enter other areas where roads were too destroyed, including Gaza City’s al-Karama district, where a “large number” were killed or wounded, according to the Hamas-run Interior Ministry. Strikes have killed at least four Red Crescent paramedics, the organization said.

The risk of the war spreading was evident Wednesday after the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military position and claimed to have killed and wounded troops.

The Israeli military confirmed the attack but did not comment on possible casualties. The Israeli army shelled the area in southern Lebanon where the attack was launched.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned other countries and armed groups against entering the war. The U.S. is already rushing munitions and military equipment to Israel and has deployed a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean as deterrence.

In the West Bank, Israeli settlers attacked a village south of Nablus, opening fire on Palestinians and killing three, the territory’s health ministry said. More than two dozen Palestinians have died in fighting in the West Bank since the weekend.

Israel has mobilized 360,000 reservists, massed additional forces near Gaza and evacuated tens of thousands of residents from nearby communities.

Toppling Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, would likely require prolonged ground fighting and reoccupying Gaza, at least temporarily. Even then, Hamas has a long history of operating as an underground insurgency in areas controlled by Israel.