GAZA/JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – The Israeli military said it had called up an unprecedented 300,000 reservists and was imposing a total blockade of the Gaza Strip, in a sign it may be planning a ground assault in response to the devastating weekend attack by Hamas gunmen.
After hours of intense bombardment by Israeli jets, Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls Gaza, said it would execute an Israeli captive if civilian houses were bombed.
Inside Israel, Palestinian fighters were still holed up in several locations, two days after they killed hundreds of Israelis and seized dozens of hostages in a raid that shattered Israel’s reputation of invincibility.
Israeli TV channels said the death toll from the Hamas attack had climbed to 900. Gaza’s Health Ministry said at least 687 Palestinians have been killed and 3,726 wounded in Israeli air strikes on the blockaded enclave since Saturday.
Hamas spokesman Abu Ubaida said the group had been acting in accordance with Islam by keeping the Israeli captives safe.
But in return for every Israeli bombing of a civilian house without warning, it would begin executing an Israeli civilian captive and broadcast it, he said.
Echoing Hamas, the Islamic Jihad armed wing, which said it was holding more than 30 Israeli captives, asked Israel to refrain from hitting civilians if they cared about the fate of Israelis in its custody.
In Gaza, Israel pressed on with its most intensive retaliatory strikes ever. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant announced a tightened blockade, which would prevent even food and fuel from reaching the strip, home to 2.3 million people.
As night fell, the Israeli air strikes became more aggressive, and witnesses said several Hamas security headquarters and ministries were hit. The strikes destroyed some roads and houses.
Israel also bombed the headquarters of the private Palestinian Telecommunication Co., which could impact land phone, internet and mobile phone services.
As it rained, explosions and lightning lit the skies, and thunder mixed with the sound of the bombings.
In a further signal of Israel’s rapid shift to a war footing, a cabinet member from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party said it could set up a national unity government joined by opposition leaders within hours.
Netanyahu told mayors of southern towns hit by Saturday’s surprise assault that Israel’s response would “change the Middle East”.
At the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, men clambered on a pancaked building to pull an infant’s tiny body from the rubble, carrying it down through the crowd below amid still-smouldering remains of bombed buildings.
That air strike killed and wounded dozens, according to the territory’s health ministry.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said some 137,000 people were taking shelter with UNRWA, the U.N. agency that provides essential services to Palestinians.