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‘Street fighting and large civilian casualties’ expected as Israel readies Gaza offensive

Israel has expanded its mobilisation of reservists with flights dispatched around Europe to bring them back to the country, raising speculation that Israel is contemplating a ground offensive into Gaza.

The announcement on Tuesday that an unprecedented 360,000 reservists had been activated came as the Israeli army continued its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, three days after Hamas launched a surprise attack in Israel.

“We have never drafted so many reservists on such a scale,” the chief military spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said.

They could include British reservists who hold Israeli nationality. According to the 2011 census, there were 23,221 Israelis living in the UK.

KFAR AZA, ISRAEL - OCTOBER 10: IDF Soldiers wait in a trench, ready to fire, near the border with Gaza, on October 10, 2023 in Kfar Aza, Israel. Israel has sealed off Gaza and conducted airstrikes on Palestinian territory after the Hamas attack killed hundreds and took nearly 100 hostages. On October 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza by land, sea, and air, killing over 700 people and wounding more than 2000. Israeli soldiers and civilians have also been taken hostage by Hamas and moved into Gaza. The attack prompted a declaration of war by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and ongoing retaliatory strikes by Israel on Gaza killing hundreds. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
IDF soldiers in a trench in Kfar Aza, Israel (Photo: Alexi J.Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Israel said it had fully deployed 35 military battalions and four divisions and was “building an infrastructure for future operations”.

Israel’s military confirmed on Tuesday that the IDF have “more or less” restored full control over the border fence with Gaza, with growing anticipation that there will be a ground incursion into the Palestinian territory.

The scale and depth of the operation remain unclear, but the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (Bicom), a UK-based organisation, reported that plans were “being formulated by the head of the IDF Southern Command“, which is responsible for all units located in the Arava, Negev, and Eilat regions south of the country.

Middle East correspondent Alistair Bunkall at Sky News reported an IDF source as saying the Israeli offensive into Gaza “is not going to be clean”.

Israeli airlines El Al, Israir and Arkia added more flights on Tuesday to bring back reservists, according to their websites and Israel’s airports authority, after many Israelis had gone abroad in the past week for a Jewish holiday.

Israir Airlines said it was offering flights from Larnaca in Turkey, Corfu and Batumi in Georgia, while Arkia also scheduled journeys from the Greek capital Athens to Eilat in southern Israel and Marrakesh in Morocco to Tel Aviv, among others. Flag carrier El Al also added a flight from Athens.

Major Nir Dinar, spokesperson for the IDF, said troops were waiting for a decision from the government on a ground offensive into Gaza, and were aware of the inevitable risks.

“I assume this most reasonable option because we need to bring back those who are kidnapped and I don’t see any other way,” he said in a briefing on Tuesday.

“The army is prepared. Soldiers know there’s a big risk on their lives to protect Israelis.

Attacks on Saturday took place on Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip (Image: inews/Brett Dietrich)

“Hamas declared war and unfortunately their population will pay the price.”

Retired US Army Major Mike Lyons said it will “take them (Israel) a while” to gather the reservists as part of a large offensive operation.

“Once they go in (Gaza), what are their objectives going to be? Are they going to attack from different sides or are they going to come from (the south) and cut off Hamas troops?” he said in analysis on CNN, adding that northern Gaza was the “centre of gravity” with regards to where Hamas troops are.

He said there was a potential of war on three fronts – along with continuing fighting in Gaza, there is a threat of an invasion from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group in the north, plus the need to maintain order in the occupied West Bank. “They have to be able to put troops in all of these locations,” Major Lyons said.

Once soldiers get into Gaza “it’s going to be street fighting, house to house, and large civilian casualties”, he added.

In the past, Israel’s ground incursions were preceded by a wave of air strikes. In the days since the cross-border incursion by Hamas gunmen on Saturday, Israel has pummelled Gaza with intense airstrikes that has reduced some areas, including the upmarket Rimal neighbourhood, to rubble.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said at least 187,518 Palestinians have fled their homes in Gaza. Of those, more than 137,000 were sheltering in schools.

Israel has not launched a ground offensive in Gaza since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, which saw an overwhelming number of Palestinian civilians killed.

The UN said that of the 2,251 Palestinians deaths, 1,462 were civilians, including 299 women and 551 children, while 11,231 people were wounded. In Israel, six civilians and 67 soldiers were killed while up to 1,600 people were injured.

An Israeli army official has advised the more than two million Palestinians who live in Gaza to leave by using the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, but it was shut down on Monday after an Israeli air strike on the border terminal.

Most Gazans usually cannot cross the border without special permission from Egypt, since the enclave has been under an Israeli blockade from 2007.

On Sunday the US dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean to be ready to assist Israel, and said it will send additional military aid.

Downing Street said the UK is not planning to redeploy military assets to the Middle East, with warship HMS Duncan already in the Mediterranean as part of Nato patrols.

The death toll on both sides has continued to climb, with Israel reporting more than 1000 people killed by Hamas fighters and rocket fire, while the Palestinian health officials say more than 780 people in Gaza have been killed by Israeli strikes.

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