The Israeli army said it was preparing for a ground assault on Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip but that the country’s political leaders had not yet taken a decision and said it has dropped around 6,000 bombs on the Gaza Strip since fighting began on Saturday.

At the same time, important world leaders are engaging their counterparts boosting efforts to de-escalate the Hamas-Israel conflict. After visiting Tel Aviv, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday he will visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan to try and defuse crisis from spiralling out.

On the other hand, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi phoned KSA Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman to discuss peace. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like Egypt, has also offered to mediate for a ceasefire. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II to call for “an immediate end to the comprehensive aggression against the Palestinian people.”

The Israeli military bombarded a residential building in the densely populated Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, killing at least 45 people and injuring dozens more, Gaza’s interior ministry said.

Earlier, the Israeli army said the military’s campaign against the Islamists was also aimed at “taking out” the group’s senior leadership, including top government officials. “We are waiting to see what our political leadership decides about a potential ground” incursion, army spokesman Richard Hecht told journalists. “This has not been decided yet… But we are preparing for a ground manoeuvre if it is decided.”

The army has deployed tens of thousands of troops to the border with the Gaza Strip as it continues a withering air campaign it says targets Hamas infrastructure, commanders and operating centres in the enclave. Israel’s assault is targeting senior leaders of Hamas, Hecht said, including the group’s chief in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.

“Right now we are focused on taking out their senior leadership, not only the military leadership (but) also their governmental leadership, all the way up to Sinwar,” Hecht said. “They were directly connected” to the weekend attack, he added.

In a statement, the army said it has bombarded Gaza with approximately 6,000 munitions containing a total of 4,000 tonnes of explosives since Saturday when it began striking Hamas targets.

Israel’s air campaign has also so far left at least 1,537 people dead in the Gaza Strip, according to the latest toll from the Hamas-affiliated health ministry. At least 150 hostages were taken into Gaza during Hamas’s deadly attacks at the weekend that killed 1,300 people. The UN said more than 338,000 people have been displaced.

Israel and Hamas traded more fire, with AFP journalists witnessing several air strikes targeting two Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Until now Hamas has fired more than 5,000 rockets at Israel, according to the army.

Israel also struck Syria’s two main airports, in Damascus and Aleppo, in “simultaneous” attacks on landing strips that put them out of service”, state media said, citing an unidentified military source.

In a related development, two officers were wounded in a shooting in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, police said, adding the gunman was neutralised.

Meanwhile, there have been calls for a humanitarian corridor to allow Palestinians to escape ahead of a possible Israeli ground invasion. Fears have grown for Gaza’s 2.4 million people who have seen Israel cut off water, food and power supplies. Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz vowed the total siege of Gaza would remain in force until the hostages are freed.

Gaza’s hospitals “risk turning into morgues”, said the International Committee of the Red Cross Middle East chief Fabrizio Carboni, stressing “the human misery caused by this escalation is abhorrent”. The World Food Programme warned of a “dire situation” in the territory, where Israel has cut off food, water and fuel supplies.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced concern about the “supercharged cycle of violence and horror”, urged the release of all hostages and the lifting of the siege, and stressed that “civilians must be protected at all times”.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed unwavering US support for Israel in its war on Hamas during a visit but said the Palestinians also have “legitimate aspirations” not represented by the Islamist militant group. “You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself,” Blinken said at a joint press conference in Tel Aviv with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “But as long as America exists, you will never, ever have to. We will always be there by your side.”

“Anyone who wants peace and justice must condemn Hamas’ reign of terror,” Blinken said. Netanyahu voiced appreciation for US support, and said Hamas, which rules the blockaded Gaza Strip, should be treated like the Islamic State group. “Just as ISIS was crushed, so too will Hamas be crushed. And Hamas should be treated exactly the way ISIS was treated,” Netanyahu said.

White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said that 27 Americans were now confirmed killed whereas 14 are unaccounted for.

To give an impetus to peace efforts, Blinken said the next stop on his visit was Jordan, to meet King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday and later will travel to Doha to discuss Hamas with Qatari leaders and focus on joint Qatari-US efforts to secure the release of hostages and de-escalate.

He would also visit Egypt, a key player in Arab diplomacy, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In each stop, “we will continue pressing countries to help prevent the conflict from spreading and to use their leverage on Hamas to immediately and unconditionally release the hostages,” Blinken told a news conference in Tel Aviv.

Similarly, the Iranian president spoke on the phone with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In the call with Raisi, Prince Mohammed said Saudi Arabia would work with regional and international partners to stop any escalation in the region. Iran also called on Islamic and Arab countries to form a united front against Israel, as the West ramped up warnings against exploiting the volatile situation and touching off a regional conflict.

“All the Islamic and Arab countries… must reach serious convergence and cooperation on the path of stopping the crimes of the Zionist regime against the oppressed Palestinian nation,” Raisi said in the call with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad. Accusing Israel of a “genocide of the Palestinians”, Raisi said Iran will coordinate with Islamic countries “as soon as possible”, the Iranian presidency website said. Tehran also offered to host an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has 57 member states. Similar remarks have been made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, like Egypt, has offered to mediate for a ceasefire.

Earlier on Wednesday, President Joe Biden urged Benjamin Netanyahu to follow the rules of war after the Israeli prime minister vowed to destroy Hamas following the Palestinian militants attack. The 80-year-old president also warned Hamas-backer Iran to “be careful.”

NATO countries told Israel’s defence minister they stood by his country after the attack by Hamas, but urged his forces to respond with “proportionality”. “Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO condemned the terrorist attacks in the strongest possible terms,” adding: “Israel does not stand alone,” NATO said in a statement.

British Defence Secretary Grant Shapps insisted that Israel was “going after the terrorists” in Gaza. “They are not by design attacking civilians,” he told journalists at NATO headquarters. “That’s a very, very important, critical difference that I think the whole world needs to understand.”

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas called for “an immediate end to the comprehensive aggression against the Palestinian people”, his office said following a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman. In his public remarks, Abbas rejected “practices related to killing civilians or abusing them on both sides”, according to a statement. The two leaders discussed “ways to stop the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people and deliver aid and relief” to Hamas-controlled Gaza, the statement said. The targeting of civilians by both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants “contravenes morals, religion and international law”, Abbas said.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany would use “all contacts” it has in the region to prevent a worsening of the conflict between Israel and Hamas militants.

In parliament, Scholz addressed “critics of such contacts”, saying it would be “irresponsible in this dramatic situation not to use all contacts who could help”.

The chancellor also broached the fate of hostages kidnapped by Hamas, including German nationals. “Hamas has full responsibility for the well-being of the hostages,” Scholz said, calling for them to be released. The German leader also acknowledged Qatar’s “humanitarian efforts” in the talks. Scholz said he also would speak with King Abdullah II of Jordan when the monarch visits Berlin next week.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has said opening a “new front” against Israel would depend on Israel’s actions in Gaza. “Officials of some countries contact us and ask about the possibility of a new front (against Israel) being opened in the region,” said Foreign Minister Abdollahian during a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

“We tell them that our clear answer regarding future possibilities is that everything depends on the actions of the Zionist regime in Gaza,” he said, according to a statement from the Iranian foreign ministry. “Even now, Israel’s crimes continue and no one in the region asks us for permission to open new fronts.”

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