Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Sunday to “demolish Hamas” as 300,000 Israeli troops massed on the border of the Gaza Strip ahead of an expected ground invasion to find and attack Hamas militants.
The Israeli leader for the first time convened his emergency war Cabinet, including opposition lawmaker Benny Gantz, in what Netanyahu said was a show of national unity.
Meeting at the military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said all the Israeli leaders were “working around the clock, with a united front.”
The ministers stood for a moment’s silence in memory of 1,300 Israelis who were killed in Hamas’s shock attack Oct. 7. Israel, in turn, has launched hundreds of airstrikes and missile attacks on Gaza and killed about 1,900 Palestinians.
“Hamas thought we would be demolished,” Netanyahu said. “It is we who will demolish Hamas.” He said the show of political unity “sends a clear message to the nation, the enemy and the world.”
The Israeli leaders met as the U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken would return to Israel Monday for further discussions after visiting the Jewish state last week. The top U.S. diplomat has made seven stops in Middle Eastern countries in recent days, including Egypt on Sunday, to work with Arab allies to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spiraling out of control.
Israeli officials continued Sunday to demand that people living in the northern half of Gaza leave to the southern half of the narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea, creating a chaotic caravan of cars and parents, with children in hand, walking with their life’s belongings to an uncertain future.
An Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said, “We want people to go south.”
Hamas urged residents to stay put, even as Israeli forces massed on the border for a likely ground invasion and cut off food, water, power and medical supplies into Gaza.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” show that Israel has assured him that it has restored water supplies to the southern half of Gaza.
Twenty-nine Americans have been killed in the fighting and 15 others remain unaccounted for.
Sullivan said it is President Joe Biden’s “highest priority” to find and rescue the American hostages the U.S. believes Hamas is holding.
Sullivan, however, acknowledged that the U.S. does not know “where or who they are.” He told ABC’s “This Week” show that some of the missing Americans may already have been killed.
Sullivan said U.S. efforts “are under way with third countries” trying to secure the release of the American hostages but gave no further details.
Sullivan said it has demanded that Egypt allow Americans to escape Gaza into Egypt, but that Hamas has blocked such efforts at the border checkpoint at Rafah.
Egypt has told the U.S. that it has too many evacuation requests to accommodate U.S. nationals and that it cannot grant passage to one country over others, according to two Egyptian officials, who also cited security concerns related to a lack of screening of individuals.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis is mounting in Gaza as Palestinians scramble to evacuate from the northern part of Gaza and head south before the expected Israeli military offensive.
Biden called Netanyahu on Saturday and reiterated the “unwavering” U.S. support for Israel and warned against anyone “seeking to expand the conflict,” a White House statement said. Biden also updated Netanyahu on U.S. military support to Israel.
Later Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the U.S. was sending a second carrier strike group, the USS Eisenhower, to the eastern Mediterranean. It would join the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group, which arrived days ago.
“The increases to U.S. force posture signal the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and our resolve to deter any state or non-state actor seeking to escalate this war,” Austin said in a statement.
Also Saturday, Russia asked the U.N. Security Council to vote Monday on a draft resolution on the Israel-Hamas conflict calling for a humanitarian cease-fire and condemning violence against civilians and all acts of terrorism.
U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.