London | Israel has paused its planned ground invasion of Gaza so the US can rush air defence systems to the region that will protect American military bases from the fallout, media reports have said.
The Wall Street Journal quoted US and Israeli officials as saying the US is racing to get air defences onto the ground in Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Washington fears Israel’s assault on Gaza will provoke Islamist groups to launch missile and rocket attacks on American troops.
Still, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a televised statement late on Wednesday (Thursday AEDT) to reaffirm that Israel was “getting prepared” for a ground offensive, without divulging any details.
“I will not elaborate on when, how, or how many. I will also not elaborate on the various calculations we are making, which the public is mostly unaware of and that is how things should be,” he said.
“We have already killed thousands of terrorists and this is only the beginning,” he declared. “All Hamas militants are doomed.”
But the officials quoted in the WSJ said Israel was also waiting to see if there is further progress in negotiations with Hamas to release more of the 220 hostages the militant group is holding in Gaza, after abducting them from Israel during the October 7 attacks.
Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told the media that “some sort of breakthrough” could emerge “hopefully soon” in the talks it is brokering to release hostages.
But Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari was quoted as saying that an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza could hinder his government’s effort.
“Obviously, a land incursion into Gaza would make it difficult to maintain the safety of the hostages, and in our efforts at mediation with both sides we urge all parties in this conflict to de-escalate immediately,” he reportedly said.
In Israel, some commentators have said Qatar is a supporter of Hamas and accused the country of using the talks to string the Israelis along.
“Qatar is the enemy itself. Qatar finances, assists and strengthens the terrorist organisation Hamas-Daesh,” former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett said on social media platform X.
An Israeli government spokeswoman, Tal Heinrich, said the ground assault was still on the cards.
“The next stage of action ... will come,” she told Fox News. “We are consulting with international partners ... and we will make the right decisions at the right time ... [and] act decisively and judiciously”.
Meanwhile, regional tensions continued to simmer. Eight Syrian soldiers were killed and seven wounded in an Israeli air strike in Syria, according to the country’s state media agency SANA. Aleppo Airport was reportedly damaged, and even Damascus Airport has been hit, the Syrian reports claimed.
The Israeli Defence Force reportedly said it had been responding to artillery fire from within Syria, and had taken out mortar positions.
The IDF said it had also hit five squads in south Lebanon that were preparing attacks. Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah has been involved in daily skirmishes with the IDF along Israel’s northern border, and says 42 of its fighters had been killed in the 19 days since Hamas attacked Israel.
Lebanese media said key leaders from Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad had met on Wednesday to coordinate their “resistance axis”. Hezbollah is threatening an armed response to any Gaza invasion.
In Gaza, the Hamas-run health ministry said more than 750 people had died in Israeli air strikes in the past 24 hours, pushing the death toll past 6500.
Associated Press quoted the IDF as saying its strikes had killed militants and destroyed tunnels, command centres, weapons storehouses and other military targets.
The Israelis again accused Hamas of exacerbating the suffering of Gaza’s 2.3 million civilians by hiding its militants among them.
But the Western world continues to fret about the civilian loss of life in Gaza, and Arab and Islamic governments are even more concerned.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Edrogan told MPs on Wednesday that he had cancelled a planned trip to Israel, and other media reports said he had also halted a joint energy exploration project in the Mediterranean.
Mr Erdogan said Hamas “is not a terrorist organisation, it is a liberation group, mujahideen [Islamic fighters], defending their land and citizens”.
He called for an immediate ceasefire and said the West should pressure Israel to stop bombing Gaza, describing the aerial assault as among “the bloodiest, most disgusting and most savage attacks in history”.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat took to social media to criticise Mr Erdogan’s statement, but the bigger diplomatic spat was with the United Nations.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres faced Israeli calls to quit after saying the Palestinians been “subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation”, and arguing that neither side should use the other’s “appalling attacks” as a justification for their own.
He also condemned the aerial bombardment as “the collective punishment of the Palestinian people” and a “clear violation of international humanitarian law”.
On Wednesday Mr Guterres told journalists his words had been misrepresented as support for Hamas, but Israel stepped up its critique: the country’s UN ambassador Gilad Erdan threatened that his country would stop issuing visas to UN personnel.
The IDF also took aim at a claim by the UN Relief and Works Agency that its operations in Gaza would have to be halted through a lack of fuel, because the number of trucks making it into the Palestinian territory from Egypt was so paltry.
Responding to a UNRWA post on X which made this claim, the IDF posted its own message containing a satellite photo of what it said were tanks inside Gaza containing 500,000 litres of fuel. “Ask Hamas if you can have some,” the IDF said.
Hamas may be hoarding fuel to power the generators supplying its 500-kilometre underground tunnel network, and move its rocket-launcher vehicles around.
CNN reported that US advisers were urging the IDF not to launch an invasion that would entail hand-to-hand, street-by-street conflict with Hamas militants in Gaza. The Americans are reportedly instead counselling a continued campaign of air strikes and commando raids.
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