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Gaza aid ‘in next day or so’ as Israel girds for offensive

Rafah, Palestinian Territories – Trucks of international aid for Gaza should be rolling “in the next day or so,” the United Nations said Friday, with Palestinians desperate for life-saving supplies after sustained bombing from Israel, still reeling from its bloodiest-ever attack.

Some 175 lorries crammed with vital medicines, food, and water stretched into the distance at the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which has removed concrete roadblocks and is scrambling to repair the route into besieged Gaza – the only one not controlled by Israel.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas after the Islamist militant group launched an unprecedented raid from the Gaza Strip on October 7, killing at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians shot, mutilated, or burned to death, according to Israeli officials.

Hamas gunmen also kidnapped some 200 hostages including foreigners from around two dozen countries ranging from Paraguay to Tanzania. The majority are still alive, the Israeli army said Friday.

In response, Israeli bombers have levelled entire city blocks in Gaza in preparation for a ground invasion they say is coming soon. The Hamas-run health ministry said 4,137 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died in the onslaught.

Israeli jets pounded more than 100 Hamas targets in Gaza overnight, the army said, with AFP reporters hearing loud explosions and witnessing plumes of smoke billowing from the northern Gaza Strip.

Embracing front-line soldiers and clad in body armor, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged them to “fight like lions” and “win with full force.”

Fists clenched and voice raised, Netanyahu told cheering troops: “We will deal harsh blows to our enemies in order to achieve victory.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told some of the tens of thousands of personnel preparing the ground invasion that “the order will come soon.”

DESPERATELY WAITING. A man lifts a placard near tents set up by volunteers and NGO workers along the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, demanding clearance for an aid convoy to enter the Gaza Strip. AFP

‘Beyond catastrophic’

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the Rafah crossing to personally oversee preparations, as workmen operating bulldozers on the Gazan side battled to make the road passable.

A spokesman for UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths told reporters in Geneva a first delivery was due “in the next day or so,” following a deal clinched by US President Joe Biden to allow 20 trucks of aid for civilians.

Medicine, water purifiers and blankets were being unloaded at El Arish airport near Gaza, an AFP reporter saw, with Ahmed Ali, head of the Egyptian Red Crescent, saying he was getting “two to three planes of aid a day.”

But World Health Organization emergencies director Michael Ryan said Biden’s 20-truck deal was “a drop in the ocean of need” and that 2,000 trucks were required.

The UN says more than one million of Gaza’s 2.4 million people are displaced, with the humanitarian situation “beyond catastrophic” and deteriorating daily.

Refugees from northern Gaza told harrowing tales of bombs, profiteering, and extreme temperatures as whole families trekked on foot to flee the violence.

Mother of seven Fadwa Al-Najjar walked for 10 hours with her family from northern Gaza to reach a UN camp in the southern town of Khan Yunis, saying she saw cars hit by a strike on the road just in front of them.

“We saw bodies and limbs torn off and we just started praying, thinking we were going to die,” she said.

‘It’s unimaginable’

On the other side of the conflict, the full horror of what Israel suffered on October 7 and following days was still emerging, as traumatized residents recounted their stories.

Shachar Butler, a security chief at the Nir Oz kibbutz, where Hamas militants killed or kidnapped a quarter of the 400 residents, recalls more than a dozen gunmen spraying bullets indiscriminately and lobbing grenades at homes.

“It’s unimaginable,” the 40-year-old told AFP as part of a trip organized by the Israeli military.

“Anytime someone tried to touch my window, I shot him,” he said. “The people who came out got kidnapped, killed, executed, slaughtered.”

Butler estimated as many as 200 militants attacked the kibbutz, entering from three sides before going house-to-house. Homes there were still charred with burned personal belongings strewn everywhere.

Israel says around 1,500 Hamas fighters were killed in clashes before its army regained control of the areas under attack.

’45 of us gone’

During a rare Oval Office address, Biden vowed the United States would take the lead in supporting Israel and Ukraine, saying he would make an “urgent” request to Congress for aid later Friday.

Fresh from a whirlwind trip to Israel this week, Biden is hoping to staunch the possibility of a wider Middle East war.

The United States has moved two aircraft carriers into the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both Hamas allies, from getting involved.

The conflict has inflamed passions across the region, with protests planned in several countries and Hamas urging demonstrators to target Israeli and US embassies.

Both sides traded blame for deadly strikes, the latest coming at a church compound in Gaza late Thursday.

The Hamas-controlled interior ministry said several people sheltering at the church were killed and wounded, blaming an Israeli strike.

The Israeli army acknowledged a wall of the church had been damaged in one of its air strikes targeting a “command and control center belonging to a Hamas terrorist” and said the incident was “under review.”

“This place is dedicated for praying, a place of love and peace,” said witness Abu Khalil Jahshan. “There is no safe place here in Gaza.”

Meanwhile, Gaza students in Egypt told AFP of their nightmare watching events unfold from far away.

Haya Shehab, 21, learned from an Instagram post that her extended family’s home had been bombed, killing 45 people – dozens of them cousins.

“Just like that, 45 of us are gone,” said Shehab, who studies at a private university in Cairo. AFP

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