US sends second aircraft carrier as Israel prepares offensive in Gaza

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The US is sending a second aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean as Israel’s preparations for a ground offensive against Gaza heighten concerns about the war triggering a broader conflagration.

Israel said on Saturday evening that its military forces were preparing to implement a “wide range of operational offensive plans”, ahead of an expected full-scale land invasion of Gaza in the wake of Hamas’s assault on Israel last week.

The Israel Defense Force said its soldiers were deployed “across the country” and were increasing “operational readiness for the next stages of the war, with an emphasis on significant ground operations”.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the impoverished, hemmed-in strip have been fleeing to Gaza’s south after Israel ordered them to leave the enclave’s north.

Western and Arab diplomats fear the war between Israel and Hamas could spark a regional conflict, and are particularly concerned that it could draw in Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group, as well as other militants in the region who are also supported by Tehran.

Israel said on Sunday that it was closing an area of up to 4km on its border with Lebanon, and that it was restricting the use of GPS in “active combat zones”. Israel also said it was evacuating residents from Sderot, a southern city near the Gaza border.

Mourners attend the funeral of people killed in an Israeli air strike in the Rafah refugee camp © Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

There have been several exchanges of artillery fire on the frontier between Israel and Lebanon since Hamas’s attack, but so far the Hizbollah and Israeli forces appear to be seeking to contain the hostilities. 

Washington said earlier this week that it would send a carrier strike group led by the USS Gerald R Ford to the region. On Saturday night US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said he was also sending a group led by the USS Dwight D Eisenhower “as part of our effort to deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts toward widening this war following Hamas’s attack on Israel”.

Israel’s military said on Sunday that it was receiving ongoing supplies of advanced weapons from the US.

Israel has said that it intends to launch “enhanced operations” in Gaza but has not yet spelt out its strategy or goals in what is expected to be a multipronged assault and one of its largest ground offensives in years. 

“Our goal is to eliminate the Hamas infrastructure all the way to the top,” said Lt Col Richard Hecht, a military spokesman. He described Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, as a “dead man walking”.

The IDF said on Sunday that it was discussing details with the country’s political leadership. An official reiterated remarks made by other officials in recent days, indicating that Israel intends to end Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip.

Hecht said that on Saturday night Israel “took out” Bilal al Qadr, a senior commander whom it holds responsible for the massacre of Israelis in border communities on October 7.

On Saturday night militant groups fired rockets from Gaza towards Tel Aviv and southern Israel; no casualties were reported.

This came as Israel accused Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, of preventing the southward flight of civilian convoys ahead of its expected assault into the densely populated north of the enclave.

“Hamas has issued warnings to their civilians not to evacuate, and when people didn’t listen to those warnings of Hamas, they have actually stopped civilians and they have stopped convoys of Gazan civilians trying to flee,” Jonathan Conricus, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, said on Sunday morning.

Last week Israel called up 360,000 military reservists and laid siege to the enclave, cutting off power, fuel and fresh water after devastating cross-border attacks on its civilians and soldiers by Palestinian gunmen.

On Friday, Israel warned 1.1mn people, or nearly half of Gaza’s population, to move south from Gaza City and other northern parts of the territory, resulting in one of the largest displacements of Palestinians in years.

The Jewish state faces growing international calls to spare the lives of Gaza civilians uprooted from their homes amid worsening humanitarian conditions, including from western countries that have also voiced support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

Palestinian civilians have suffered heavily during Israel’s past military escalations against Hamas. Border crossings from Gaza into Israel have been closed since the October 7 attacks, and the crossing from the enclave into Egypt via Rafah remains largely closed, leaving most civilians with no option but to flee south.

Evacuation efforts for international civilians are continuing in both Israel and Gaza. The US embassy in Israel said it was sending a ship to Haifa to evacuate US nationals. Western nations are trying to secure safe passage for their citizens in Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

This month’s attack by Hamas and other Gaza-based militants killed more than 1,400 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities. Israel said on Saturday that it had identified 120 hostages who were abducted by Palestinian gunmen during the incursion.

At least 2,329 people have been killed in Gaza, including many women and children, according to Palestinian health officials.

Additional reporting by Samer al-Atrush in Dubai

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