The terrible toll from the war between Israel and Hamas worsened this week, as tensions on Israel’s northern border added to fears the fighting could erupt into an all-out regional war. By Jonathan Pearlman.

A million Gazans flee homes as conflict escalates

People search through the debris of a fallen building.
The search for victims in buildings destroyed during Israeli air strikes in southern Gaza this week.
Credit: Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images

Devastation in Gaza

The terrible toll from the war between Israel and Hamas worsened this week, as tensions on Israel’s northern border added to fears the fighting could erupt into an all-out regional war.

On Tuesday, as hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza evacuated to the south of the densely populated coastal strip, an explosion sparked fires at a crowded hospital in central Gaza. Officials in Gaza said the blast left 471 people dead.

“There was a strong explosion, and the ceiling fell on the operating room,” Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a plastic surgeon who was working at the hospital, told BBC News. “This is a massacre.”

Hamas blamed an Israeli air strike, calling it a “horrific massacre”. Israel said the “barbaric” explosion was due to a failed rocket attack by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group. The United States said imagery and communications intercepts indicated that a failed rocket launch was responsible.

The blast led to protests in the West Bank and across the Middle East, and was condemned by international leaders and the United Nations. Jordan cancelled a summit in Amman, which was due to include US President Joe Biden, the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

The explosion marked the deadliest incident in Gaza since Israel launched a war against Hamas, an Iran-backed group that controls Gaza, after more than 1500 Hamas militants entered Israel on October 7 and attacked nearby towns and kibbutzim. The Hamas attack left 1400 Israelis dead. A further 200 Israelis were taken hostage.

In response, Israel conducted air strikes across Gaza, saying it intended to remove Hamas from power. As of Thursday, more than 3400 people in Gaza had been killed.

Supplies of food, water, fuel and medicines in Gaza, which has about 2.3 million residents, have been dwindling after Israel imposed a siege of the strip. About a million people fled their homes, including 600,000 who fled northern Gaza for the south following Israeli warnings to evacuate. Egypt, which borders Gaza, refused entry to residents of Gaza but signalled it would allow entry to foreign citizens and will allow the passage of 20 trucks of aid.

On Wednesday, Israel said it would not allow passage of aid until hostages were released, but agreed to Egypt letting in aid if it did not benefit Hamas.

Israel moves to oust Hamas

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has never overseen a full-scale war, but he called up 360,000 reservists and was expected to launch a ground invasion of Gaza.

Israel has fought four previous conflicts with Hamas but has failed to prevent its capacity to fire rockets and was caught off guard by the cross-border attack on October 7, the bloodiest day in Israel’s history.

Previously, Netanyahu has largely avoided sending in ground troops due to the risks of conducting urban warfare against Hamas, which operates from a network of tunnels and bunkers and from residential neighbourhoods.

But the scale of the Hamas attack – and the large number of Israeli hostages – prompted Netanyahu to form a unity government that said it would change the “strategic reality” in Gaza.

It is not clear whether an Israeli ground invasion would succeed in toppling Hamas, or at what cost. The larger question is what Israel would do following an invasion. Israel has said it does not intend to reoccupy the strip but wants to remove Hamas’s political and military leadership.

Military analysts believe the prospect of ground troops freeing large numbers of hostages is remote. Officials from the US and Israel, which view Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and from Qatar, which has links to Hamas and other militant groups, have reportedly been negotiating to try to secure the release of the hostages. Previous deals have sometimes taken years to secure, and some of the hostages are believed to be held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Biden visits Israel

On Wednesday, Biden visited Israel to show solidarity, to press Israel over its strategy and encourage it to exercise restraint in Gaza. It was Biden’s second visit to a war zone as president, following his trip to Ukraine in February.

Biden said he had been “blunt” with Israel about the need to support the arrival of aid to Gaza. Speaking in Tel Aviv, he said: “While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.”

But the cancelled summit in Jordan ended Biden’s hopes of advancing a Middle East-based diplomatic process that might improve aid to Gaza and signal a future effort towards resolving the conflict.

Israel seized Gaza from Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967 and conducted a military occupation until 2005, when it withdrew troops and Jewish settlements. Since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel, backed by Egypt, has imposed a blockade it says is to prevent the flow of arms. Rights groups say the blockade is collective punishment.

Biden told CBS News last Sunday he supported the elimination of Hamas but believed that there must be “a path to a Palestinian state”.

“Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people,” he said.

Risk of regional war

As the Israel–Hamas war continues, tensions have increased along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah – an Iran-backed Shiite group – has threatened to enter the war.

Hezbollah is much stronger than Hamas: it claims to have 100,000 fighters and is believed to have about 130,000 rockets, including guided missiles.

In recent days, Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged fire – causing deaths on both sides – in what has been the most intense fighting since they fought a five-week war in 2006. If this escalates into an all-out war – whether deliberately or through miscalculation – Israel would be fighting two Iran-backed forces on its northern and southern borders. Such a confrontation would draw in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, and could extend to Iran.

US officials say they have not seen evidence Iran directly supported the Hamas attack on October 7. But the ensuing attacks by Israel in Gaza have benefited Iran, which has been concerned about recent moves by its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, to establish ties with Israel. The growing number of civilians killed in Gaza is likely to force Saudi Arabia to suspend or abandon such moves.

Last weekend, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and threatened to unleash “all the resistance axis forces if Israel continues its attack on Gaza”.

The US has deployed two aircraft carrier groups to the Mediterranean, saying the aim was to discourage “any efforts toward widening this war”. The move may deter outside actors, but it also means that, if the war spreads, the US would be likely to be involved.

Jordan’s King Abdullah told reporters this week the entire region was “on the brink of falling into the abyss”.

“The threat that this conflict spreads is real; the costs are too high for everyone,” he said.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "A million Gazans f lee homes as conflict escalates".

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