Israeli forces entered a new phase of their war against Hamas in Gaza on Thursday, launching a substantial but limited raid into the coastal strip, in what was described as a probing action in preparation for a more sustained ground offensive.
Infantry backed by tanks and armoured bulldozers moved in under cover of night and attacked Hamas targets in an hours-long raid into the north of the territory, as officials raised the number of hostages confirmed to be held by the militant Islamist group to 224.
The Israeli raid, which moved about a kilometre into Gaza from the border fence, came as EU leaders prepared to call for “humanitarian corridors and pauses” to shelling to get urgently needed aid into the territory, according to the final draft of a text to be approved at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.
More than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and there are fears the toll could rise further if Israel pushes ahead with the ground invasion. The UN said on Thursday that “nowhere is safe” in Gaza.
Hamas’s armed wing said on Thursday that “almost 50” Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip since the attacks on 7 October have been killed in Israeli bombing raids on the Palestinian territory.
The Israeli military said Thursday’s operation, which came as heavy strikes continued, was designed to search for tunnel systems and test Hamas’s responses, not least from teams Israel believes are equipped with Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, a source of major concern for Israeli military planners.
According to a military spokesperson, at least one Israeli tank came under anti-tank fire during the operation, but Israeli forces later left without incurring casualties.
Grainy video footage released by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) showed a column of at least a dozen main battle tanks and other armoured vehicles crossing through an opening in the Gaza border wall and firing on a nearby built-up area of damaged buildings.
Although Israeli troops have been raiding frequently into Gaza in the recent fighting, this incursion was described as far more significant in scale and aimed at shaping the conditions for fighting in immediate border areas for the “next stages of the war”.
Firefighters battle to put out a fire after an Israeli strike on Gaza City. Photograph: Omar El-Qattaa/AFP/Getty Images
The troops, who according to Israeli media reports came from the Givati brigade and 162nd Armoured Division, returned from the raid without casualties.
“Through the raid, we eliminated terrorists, neutralised threats, dismantled explosives, neutralised ambushes, in order to enable the next stages of the war for the ground forces,” said the Israeli military spokesperson R Adm Daniel Hagari.
Israel has been bombarding Gaza since 7 October when Hamas gunmen poured across the border, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping others.
It emerged on Wednesday that among the dead in Gaza were the wife and two children of Al Jazeera’s chief correspondent in the territory, Wael Dahdouh, who was helping to broadcast live images of its night sky when he received the news that his family members had been killed in what Al Jazeera said was an Israeli airstrike.
Moments later, the Qatari-based satellite channel switched to footage of Dahdouh entering al-Aqsa hospital in Gaza and giving way to grief as he looked at his dead son.
“They take revenge on us in our children,” he said, kneeling over his son’s body, still wearing his protective press vest from his day’s work.
The Israeli military claims it only strikes militant targets and accuses Hamas of operating among civilians in densely populated Gaza. Palestinian militants have fired rocket barrages into Israel since the war began.
00:01:01Israel preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza, says Netanyahu – video
With tens of thousands of troops massed at the Gaza border, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the country was “raining down hellfire” and that a substantive ground offensive was being prepared.
“I cannot say when, how or how many, nor all the elements that we are taking into account, of which most are not known to the public,” he said.
Amid mounting international concern over the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, the European Council was expected to add its voice to those calling for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow aid access to 1.4 million Palestinians who have been displaced by the fighting.
The draft text of an official EU declaration says: “The European Council expresses its gravest concern for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza and calls for continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs.
“The European Union will work closely with partners in the region to protect civilians, provide assistance and facilitate access to food, water, medical care, fuel and shelter, ensuring that such assistance is not abused by terrorist organisations.”
Israel’s raid took place as it carried out strikes on about 250 locations overnight, including one by the Israeli navy on what it said was a ground-to-air missile launchers near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.
Palestinians look for survivors amid the rubble of a building hit in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis, southern Gaza. Photograph: Ahmed Zakot/Sopa Images/Shutterstock
The fighting in Gaza was continuing amid reports in Israeli media of talks intended to secure a substantial release of hostages in the coming days.
Quoting unnamed Israeli and foreign sources, the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said advanced talks were under way to release a significant number of hostages and that the move could be made “within a few days”.
Separately Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, suggested that Hamas was ready to release civilian hostages to Tehran, according to comments reported by Reuters, although it was unclear how that would work.
Later on Thursday, Hamas claimed that as many as 50 of the hostages had already been killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza. Asked about the claim, an Israeli spokesperson declined to comment.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization called for Hamas to provide proof of life of the hostages it was holding and to release them all on health grounds.
“Many of the hostages, including children, women and the elderly, have pre-existing health conditions requiring urgent and sustained care and treatment. The mental health trauma that the abducted, and the families, are facing is acute and psychosocial support is of great importance,” said the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
00:01:35Biden says West Bank settlers ‘pouring gasoline on fire’ and Hamas hiding behind civilians – video
Despite the growing international alarm at the civilian impact inside Gaza, senior Israeli figures and Hamas – which is listed as a proscribed terrorist group in a number of countries, including the UK – raised the prospect of an intensification of the conflict, with Saleh al-Arouri, the Lebanon-based deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, saying that “the [real] battles have not yet begun”.
On the Israeli side, Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet and a former IDF chief of staff, told Israeli radio on Thursday: “The war will soon enter new stages and [will be fought] with greater intensity.”
US media reported that Joe Biden had been pushing Netanyahu to hold off on a ground invasion while Hamas still held hostages, but on Wednesday he denied such reports.
“What I have indicated to him is that if that’s possible to get these folks out safely, that’s what he should do. It’s their decision … but I did not demand it,” Biden said.
The raid came after the UN said it was on the verge of running out of fuel in the Gaza Strip, forcing it to sharply curtail relief efforts in the territory, which has been under a complete siege since Hamas’s rampage across southern Israel ignited the war earlier this month.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report