Israel defence minister orders 'complete siege' on Gaza

Israel defence minister orders 'complete siege' on Gaza
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday ordered a "complete siege" on the Gaza Strip as the military pounded the Palestinian territory with air strikes following a surprise attack by Palestinian armed group Hamas.

"We are putting a complete siege on Gaza... No electricity, no food, no water, no gas - it's all closed," Mr Gallant said in a video message. The Gaza Strip is an exclave that is part of the Palestinian Territories and home to 2.3 million people.

On Saturday, Hamas militants from Gaza stormed the border with southern Israel, shooting people in the communities and towns nearby before Israeli security forces began fighting back.At least 700 people were killed and dozens were taken hostage.

The death toll includes an estimated 250 people who were killed at a music festival attended by young Israelis and foreigners near Kibbutz Reim, close to Gaza, according to an organisation that helped to recover the bodies.

It was the deadliest such incursion since Egypt's and Syria's attacks in the Yom Kippur War years ago, and has threatened to ignite another conflagration in the never-ending conflict.

In the Gaza Strip, the death toll rose to at least 560, according to the health ministry, after the Israeli military launched air strikes on the exclave in response to the Hamas attack. These include 20 children, in keeping with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's vow of "mighty vengeance". On Monday, Mr Netanyahu said Israel's response to the attack will "change the Middle East".

Meanwhile, Israel's chief military spokesperson Rear-Admiral Daniel Hagari said 300,000 reservists have been called up by the military since Saturday.
The number suggests preparations for a possible invasion, though any such plans have not been officially confirmed. "We have never drafted so many reservists on such a scale," he said. "We are going on the offensive."

Palestinians reported receiving calls and mobile phone audio messages from Israeli security officers telling them to leave areas mainly in the northern and eastern territories of Gaza, and warning that the army would operate there.

Since Saturday's surprise assault, Israeli aircraft have been pounding Gaza targets while its ground forces have battled to retake control of border villages and towns overrun by Palestinian gunmen.

Admiral Hagari said control of those communities had been re-established but that isolated clashes continued as some gunmen remained active. "We are now carrying out searches in all of the communities and clearing the area," he said in a televised briefing.

Military officials had previously said that their focus was on securing Israel's side of the border before carrying out any major escalation of the counter-offensive in Gaza.

Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hecht, also a military spokesman, said earlier on Monday that fighting was ongoing in seven or eight locations near Gaza.
Hamas fighters also continued to cross into Israel from Gaza, he added.

"It's taking more time than we expected to get things back into a defensive, security posture," he told journalists. Fighter jets, helicopters and artillery struck more than 500 Hamas and militant group Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza overnight, including command centres and the home of senior Hamas official Ruhi Mashtaa, who allegedly helped direct the infiltration into Israel.

"Our job is to make sure that at the end of this war, Hamas will no longer have any military capabilities to threaten Israeli civilians with, and in addition to that, we also need to make sure Hamas will not govern the Gaza Strip," another Israeli military spokesman, Lt-Col Jonathan Conricus said.

Beyond blockaded Gaza, Israeli forces and Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah militia exchanged artillery and rocket fire. In Egypt, two Israeli tourists were shot dead along with a guide on Sunday.

Hamas says its attack on Saturday was justified by the plight of Gaza under a 16-year blockade and the deadliest Israeli crackdown for years in the occupied West Bank.

Mainstream Palestinian groups who deplored the attacks said violence was predictable with a peace process frozen for nearly a decade and far-right Israeli leaders talking of annexing Palestinian land once and for all.

Israel and Western countries said nothing justified the intentional mass killing of civilians. Iran, Hezbollah and protesters in some Middle Eastern nations lauded Hamas.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry denounced what it called a "barbarous campaign of death and destruction" by Israel. "As an occupying power, Israel has no right or justification to target the defenceless civilian population in Gaza or elsewhere in Palestine," it said on Sunday.

Appeals for restraint have meanwhile come from around the world. Egypt, which has mediated between Israel and Hamas at times of conflict in the past, was in close contact with the two sides, trying to prevent further escalation, according to Egyptian security sources.

Qatari mediators have also held urgent calls with Hamas officials to try to negotiate freedom for the Israeli hostages seized by the militant group in exchange for the release of 36 Palestinian women and children from Israel's prisons, a source told Reuters.

The negotiations, which Qatar has been conducting in coordination with the United States since Saturday night, are "moving positively", said the source, who has been briefed on the talks.
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