Israel orders more evacuations amid fears of conflict widening
By Isabel Kershner and Vivek Shankar
As Israeli forces massed along the border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday before an expected ground invasion of the enclave, escalating clashes on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon along with strikes in Syria and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank intensified fears of a widening regional conflict.
Israeli authorities said they were expanding a state-funded evacuation plan to move residents from an additional 14 Israeli villages near the border with Lebanon to safer areas. The move came as Israel’s military said Sunday it was contending with increasing attacks from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia that controls southern Lebanon, that have resulted in civilian and military casualties.
Amid concerns the conflict could spill over, the Pentagon said late Saturday that it was sending an anti-missile battery and battalions of the Patriot ground-based air defense system to the Middle East following “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration believes there is “a likelihood of escalation, escalation by Iranian proxies directed against our forces, directed against our personnel” in the days to come.
“We are taking steps to make sure that we can effectively defend our people,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.
Violence also has been surging across the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Israeli military carried out a rare airstrike there overnight against what it described as an underground “terror compound” beneath a mosque in the city of Jenin. Two people were killed, according to Palestinian health officials.
The Israeli military continued to pound Gaza with punishing airstrikes, as armed groups there fired rockets toward Israel on Sunday. Israeli officials said a man was injured in one attack that left rocket fragments in various locations around the city of Netivot, a few miles from the Gaza border.
Although the timing of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza remained unclear, senior Israeli commanders have increasingly been making public references to such preparations amid questions about when an operation might launch. The commanding officer of Israel’s ground forces, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yedai, has been meeting in recent days with soldiers training for “ground maneuvering,” according to a statement issued by Israel’s military Sunday.
The Israeli military also reiterated its warning for civilians in Gaza to move to the southern part of the enclave as a humanitarian crisis spirals. But many people there said that doing so was not an option because of cost — and that it was no guarantee of safety.
Here are some other developments:
— Aid groups and the United Nations continued to warn that the first shipment of aid that arrived in Gaza on Saturday — a convoy of 20 trucks carrying food, water and medicine — was just a fraction of what was needed. It was not immediately clear when or whether more aid would be allowed into the blockaded enclave.
— Israel’s bombardment of Gaza continued “almost unabated,” while Palestinian armed groups continued with their “indiscriminate rocket firing” toward Israel, the United Nations said. The death toll in Gaza has increased to at least 4,385, while injuries number more than 13,500, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza. On the Israeli side, the fatalities remained at 1,400 but injuries increased to almost 5,000, the U.N. said.
— The Israeli military said one of its tanks accidentally hit an Egyptian post near the border crossing between the two countries at Kerem Shalom. The military expressed “sorrow” and said the episode was under investigation. Egypt’s military said there were minor injuries but described the incident as an accident and noted Israel’s immediate apology. Kerem Shalom is a couple of miles from Egypt’s Rafah border crossing, from which a small convoy of aid trucks entered Gaza on Saturday.
— Syria’s state-run news agency said the airports in Damascus and Aleppo were shut after an early-morning strike by Israel that killed a civilian worker in Damascus. The report could not be independently verified, and Israel didn’t immediately comment. Israel has a policy of not commenting on possible operations in Syria.