Israel said on Saturday evening that its military forces were preparing to implement a “wide range of operational offensive plans”, ahead of an expected full-scale ground invasion of Gaza in the wake of Hamas’s assault on Israel.
The Israel Defense Force said that its soldiers were deployed “across the country” and were increasing “operational readiness for the next stages of the war, with an emphasis on significant ground operations”.
Israeli forces have been bombarding Gaza since Hamas launched a devastating attack last week. In recent days, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes after Israel ordered 1.1mn civilians — nearly half of Gaza’s population — to leave the northern part of the densely populated enclave, including Gaza City.
“We’re attacking Gaza City because this is the hub of Hamas’ governing and military capabilities of terror and we have to strike them with severe force,” Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesman, said in a briefing with journalists.
The IDF added that its forces were preparing for an “expanded area of combat” and that the operations being prepared “can include combined and co-ordinated strikes from the air, sea and land”.
The announcement follows efforts earlier on Saturday to enable Palestinians with dual US citizenship and other foreign passport holders to leave Gaza via the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, after Israel told diplomats that it would allow some departures.
However, no one has been allowed to leave, according to four diplomats working on the issue. One official said that convoys had been moving “back and forth” with conflicting reports about why the border had not opened.
A US official said they had encouraged Palestinians with dual American citizenship to go to the Rafah crossing but the situation kept changing.
An Arab diplomat said the Biden administration had asked Qatar to convince Hamas not to block Palestinians with US citizenship from leaving the strip, which the Islamist group agreed to. The US asked the Egyptians to open Rafah and allow them through, but “the Egyptians are yet to agree to open the border for the Americans”, the official said.
Rafah is the only exit from Gaza not controlled by Israel and has remained largely closed, leaving no way out for the 2.3mn Palestinians who have been hemmed inside the enclave since Israel imposed a blockade in 2007 in response to Hamas’s violent takeover of the territory.
Cairo has long had concerns that Israel wants to push its troubles with Gaza on to Egypt.
Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Egypt “won’t simply agree to safe passage for US and other foreign citizens unless there is also agreement on opening the border for humanitarian supplies”.
Separately, Qatar and the US were working to finalise an agreement on the release of civilian hostages seized by Hamas, a person briefed on the talks said.
The agreement would require Israel to pause its bombardment of Gaza to allow Hamas to safely release the hostages and for humanitarian aid to be delivered safely to the strip, the person added.
“There were positive meetings yesterday and Hamas seems willing to release the civilian hostages, but Hamas say they can’t do so while the bombing continues,” a person briefed on the talks said. “They need the Israelis to stop bombing Gaza for a short amount of time in order to safely release the captives.”
US secretary of state Antony Blinken held talks with Qatar’s prime minister on Friday as part of a tour of the region. Qatar is a US ally which also hosts Hamas’s political office.
Reuters cited a Hamas statement saying that the group’s leader Ismail Haniyeh met with Iran’s foreign minister in Qatar on Saturday and “agreed to continue co-operation” to achieve the group’s goals.
Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian praised the Hamas attack as a “historic victory” that had dealt a blow to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, Reuters reported.
Also on Saturday, the US said that the USS Eisenhower carrier group would join the USS Gerald R Ford strike group in the eastern Mediterranean. US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said the aim was to “deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts toward widening this war”.
Israeli authorities said Hamas killed at least 1,300 Israelis, mainly civilians, in the assault on southern Israel. Israel has identified 120 hostages who were taken in the incursion, its military said. At least 2,515 people — 1,182 of them women and children — have been killed in Gaza since Israel started its bombardment, Palestinian health officials said.
The state department said that 29 US citizens had died, while 15 were unaccounted for.
Israel’s warning to Palestinians in northern Gaza to move to the south has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the strip, and was condemned by Arab states and the UN.
The EU’s chief diplomat said on Saturday that Israel needed to respect international law.
“It’s utterly, utterly impossible to implement,” Josep Borrell said during a visit to Beijing.
US president Joe Biden said the humanitarian crisis in Gaza involved “innocent Palestinian families, and the vast majority of them have nothing to do with Hamas, they are being used as human shields”.
The Israeli military declined to discuss any deadlines, but reiterated its demand that civilians leave as soon as possible. “Follow our instructions — move south,” said Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces.
Ayman al-Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, said Israel’s order to Palestinians to leave northern Gaza when war was “raging” was a “flagrant violation of international law, international humanitarian law and the law of war”.
Israel’s offensive was causing a humanitarian catastrophe that represented the “collective punishment of more than 2mn Palestinians” and was “pushing the entire region towards the abyss”, he said.
Israel has cut off food, fresh water and electricity to Gaza. The UN said water supplies were drastically low, with people forced to drink brackish water, raising fears of disease.
“Death is better than this life,” said Mona Hanafy, 55, who took refuge in a UN-run school after her home in Gaza City was destroyed. “There are very few bathrooms and there is no water. We have only eaten biscuits since yesterday. We went to a supermarket but found nothing there.”
In a phone call on Saturday, Biden told Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the US was coordinating with other countries “to ensure innocent civilians have access to water, food, and medical care,” according to the White House. The president also spoke with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the White House said.
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai