June 18, 2024

Israeli troops mostly retook control of towns near the Gaza Strip from Palestinian gunmen on Tuesday, four days after fighters for the militant group Hamas assailed Israeli civilians and soldiers in devastating attacks that killed hundreds, wounded thousands and put the grieving country on the brink of a major military operation.

The Israeli government approved the call-up of an additional 60,000 reservists, officials said, raising the total number of mobilized soldiers over the last three days to 360,000, the most in such a short period since the country’s founding. The mobilization has touched nearly every corner of the country of 10 million, which has been plunged into anguish by the killing of more than 1,000 people in the attacks since Saturday.

With the border nearly secured on Tuesday — even as rocket attacks from Gaza continued and some firefights broke out — the scale of the horror unleashed on towns and villages near Gaza was rapidly coming into focus. In one kibbutz a mile and a half from Gaza, journalists with The New York Times saw Israeli soldiers carrying slain residents on stretchers, and more than a dozen bloated bodies lying on the ground.

Soldiers and rescue workers said scores, possibly hundreds, had been killed there, including infants and children, suggesting the death toll from the weekend alone would almost certainly keep rising.

Hamas is holding Americans hostage, President Biden said on Tuesday, and 14 Americans were confirmed to be among those killed. He called the attacks “pure unadulterated evil.”

Mr. Biden said that the United States would provide intelligence to help save hostages held by Hamas. But he did not suggest that American troops would directly assist with hostage rescue missions.

Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters that there are “20 or more” Americans missing, though it remains unclear how many of them are in the hands of Hamas.

It also remains unclear whether Israel will order a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, an impoverished coastal enclave ruled by Hamas — especially with at least 150 Israelis believed to be held captive by the group. But Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has vowed to make Hamas pay “an unprecedented price,” and military officials have said all options are on the table.

“The next step is to move forward, go on the offense, and attack the Hamas terrorist group,” Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. “We will have to change the reality within Gaza to prevent such a thing to occur again — as long as it takes.”

Israeli warplanes have already struck hundreds of sites in Gaza, including mosques and medical centers, since the gunmen attacked, and a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, said on Tuesday that airstrikes would be “bigger than before and more severe” compared with past conflicts.

Israel has said its strikes are targeting sites — such as weapons compounds and command centers — that are connected with Hamas and other armed groups. Hamas, which has threatened to kill a captive each time Israel hits Gaza without warning, confirmed that two of its senior officials have been killed.

Health officials in Gaza said on Tuesday that 900 Palestinians have been killed and 4,500 others have been wounded in the last four days, though it was unclear how many were civilians. The health officials said that at least five medical workers had been killed, and U.N. officials said that at least two hospitals and a building housing U.N. staff had been hit by airstrikes.

Israel’s defense minister has also vowed a “complete siege” of Gaza, barring the entry of electricity, food, water or fuel to the strip, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for 16 years.

Israel last launched a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza in 2014, during a 50-day war with Hamas, and the Israeli military has fought many skirmishes with Palestinian fighters in the years since. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party said on Tuesday that it was making “great strides” to assemble an emergency unity government. Just a week ago, the country was bitterly divided by Mr. Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the courts, which had led to long-running mass demonstrations.

Israeli officials said on Tuesday that they had recovered the bodies of around 1,500 Palestinian assailants since Saturday, offering one of the first clear indications of the size of the assault. Hamas does not provide details about its military capabilities, but analysts estimate that its overall force numbers in the tens of thousands, and its attacks over the weekend struck wide-ranging targets: taking over a police station, breaking into homes to kill or kidnap their inhabitants and shooting scores dead at a music festival near the Gaza border.

Palestinian fighters also continued to fire rockets into Israel, targeting central cities like Tel Aviv and driving Israelis into basements and underground shelters. With the exception of Israeli airlines, major carriers around the world have suspended air service to Israel.

The Israeli military also reported more rockets fired on Tuesday from Lebanese territory, where the militant group Hezbollah has exchanged fire with Israel for three days. The Israel military also said it had detected a number of launches from Syria into Israeli territory.

As images of the weekend’s attacks spread widely on Tuesday, drawing renewed condemnations of Hamas from leaders in the United States, Europe and much of the world, so did new details of the dead and missing.

France’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that eight French citizens had been killed and 20 were still missing.

The top U.N. human rights official, Volker Türk, condemned violence by Palestinian armed groups on Tuesday, though he also warned that Israel’s announcement of a “complete siege” of Gaza would exacerbate the “already dire” humanitarian situation in the coastal territory.

After an emergency meeting with E.U. foreign ministers on Tuesday, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell Fontelles, urged Israel to act according to international law.

“Not all the Palestinian people are terrorists,” he said. “So a collective punishment against all Palestinians will be unfair and unproductive, will be against our interest and against the interest of the peace.”

But officials were unequivocal in denouncing the hostage-taking by Palestinian gunmen, which Peter Stano, the spokesman for the European Commission, called “appalling” and “against any law and any norm of civilized behavior.”

Despite the presence of hostages in Gaza, many military analysts say Israel is likely to send forces into the coastal enclave — although it is not clear when. “The government has no choice politically,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel. “The public is so shaken and dismayed and wants to see a real change in the situation.”

He said the hostage situation “greatly constrains Israel’s freedom of action,” but added, “We’re in a different situation, in which people will be willing to be pay a price they weren’t in the past.”

For relatives of those missing or thought to be abducted, however, fear and sorrow drove desperate appeals for help from any authorities who would listen.

Adrienne Neta, 66, has been missing since Saturday morning, her son Nahar said at a news conference in Tel Aviv. His siblings were on the phone with her as attackers broke into her home in Be’eri, a kibbutz near the border with Gaza. He said they heard screaming and have not heard from her since.

“It is our hope, which is a little bit ridiculous at this stage to say, that the optimistic scenario here is that she’s held hostage in Gaza and not dead on the street of the kibbutz where we grew up,” he said.

Rachel Goldberg said she woke up on Saturday in Jerusalem to the sound of sirens warning of incoming rocket fire. Her 23-year-old son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, was at a music festival near Gaza’s border. When she turned her phone on 10 minutes later, she saw two consecutive text messages from him that read “I love you” and “I’m sorry.”

Ms. Goldberg has not heard from her son since. She said the only thing the police could tell her was that his last known cellphone signal was on the border with Gaza.

Reporting was contributed by Hiba Yazbek, Raja Abdulrahim, Ben Hubbard, Hwaida Saad, Nadav Gavrielov, Euan Ward, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Farnaz Fassihi.

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