Palestinian militant group Hamas, which dragged off about 150 hostages in its surprise weekend assault on southern Israel, threatened on Monday to kill them if Israeli air strikes continue “targeting” Gaza residents without warning.
The threat came after Israel imposed a total siege on the Gaza Strip, cutting off the water supply which sparked UN fears of an increasingly dire humanitarian situation.
Israel continued bombing targets in response to the surprise Hamas assault it has likened to the 9/11 attacks.
Reeling from the Palestinian Islamist group’s unprecedented ground, air and sea attacks, Israel has counted 800 dead and launched a withering barrage of strikes on Gaza that have raised the death toll there to 560.
Fireballs repeatedly lit up the darkness of Gaza City Monday night as explosions sounded and sirens wailed.
Hamas — whose militants surged into Israeli towns on Saturday, spraying gunfire at civilians and dragging off captives — claimed on Monday that Israeli air strikes had killed four of the hostages.
It later said it could start killing them itself.
“Every targeting of our people without warning will be met with the execution of one of the civilian hostages,” the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said in a statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier threatened that “what Hamas will experience will be difficult and terrible … We are going to change the Middle East.
“This is only the beginning,” he vowed. “We will defeat them with force, enormous force.”
Hamas launched more rockets as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where missile defence systems fired and air raid sirens blared.
Israel said it had called up 300,000 army reservists for its “Swords of Iron” campaign, and truck convoys were moving tanks to the south, where its forces were working to dislodge holdout Hamas fighters from embattled towns.
Libby Weiss, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said some Hamas militants “are still there right now”, after about 1,000 militants had penetrated the region on the Jewish Sabbath.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel would impose a “complete siege” on the long-blockaded enclave and stressed what this meant for its 2.3 million people: “No electricity, no food, no water, no gas — it’s all closed.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned this will compound Gaza’s already dire humanitarian situation.
“Now it will only deteriorate exponentially,” he said.
Palestinians in the coastal territory braced for what many feared will be a massive Israeli ground attack aiming to defeat Hamas and liberate the hostages.
Lebanon border clash
Middle East tensions have spiked as Israel’s arch enemy Iran and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah praised the Hamas attack, although Tehran rejected any direct role in the military operation.
Hamas has called on “resistance fighters” in the occupied West Bank and in Arab and Islamic nations to join its “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”, launched half a century after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
“The military operation is still continuing,” Hossam Badran, a Hamas official, told AFP from Doha, adding that “there is currently no chance for negotiation on the issue of prisoners or anything else”.
The United States has pledged “rock solid” support for Israel and said it would send munitions and military hardware to its key ally and divert an aircraft carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean, amid fears of a wider conflagration.
Israel, which has long prided itself on a high-tech military and intelligence edge in its many conflicts, has been shaken to the core by Hamas’s unprecedented attack.
It now faces the threat of a multi-front war after Hezbollah launched guided missiles and artillery shells from the north on Sunday “in solidarity”.