As strikes devastate Gaza, Israel forms unity government to oversee war sparked by Hamas attack

Israelis take cover on Wednesday from the incoming rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

An Israeli soldier stands over the body of a Hamas militant in Kibbutz Be'eri on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. The kibbutz was overrun by Hamas militants from nearby Gaza Strip Saturday, who killed and captured many Israelis. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner)

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined with a top political rival Wednesday to create a wartime Cabinet to oversee the fight to avenge the gruesome weekend attack by Hamas militants. In the sealed-off Gaza Strip, Palestinian suffering mounted as Israeli bombardment demolished neighborhoods and the only power plant ran out of fuel.

Netanyahu vowed to “crush and destroy” Hamas. “Every Hamas member is a dead man,” he said in a televised address.

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The new Cabinet establishes a degree of unity after years of bitterly divisive politics and at a time when the Israeli military appears increasingly likely to launch a ground offensive into Gaza. The war has already claimed at least 2,300 lives on both sides.

The Israeli government is under intense public pressure to topple Hamas after its militants stormed through a border fence Saturday and massacred hundreds of Israelis in their homes, on the streets and at an outdoor music festival.

Netanyahu alleged that the attackers engaged in atrocities, including binding boys and girls and shooting them in the head, burning people alive, raping women and beheading soldiers.

The prime minister’s allegations could not be independently confirmed, and authorities did not immediately offer further details. Rescue workers and witnesses have described horrifying scenes, including the slaughter of elderly people and finding bloody rooms crowded with massacred civilians.

Militants in Gaza are holding an estimated 150 people taken hostage from Israel — soldiers, men, women, children and older adults — and they have fired thousands of rockets into Israel over the past five days.

The Cabinet, which will focus only on issues of war, will be led by Netanyahu; Benny Gantz, a senior opposition figure and former defense minister; and current Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Still, Israel’s political divisions remain. The country’s chief opposition leader, Yair Lapid, was invited to join the Cabinet but did not immediately respond to the offer. It appeared that the rest of Netanyahu’s existing government partners, a collection of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, would remain in place to handle non-war issues.

Israel’s increasingly destructive airstrikes in Gaza have flattened entire city blocks and left unknown numbers of bodies beneath debris. A ground offensive in Gaza, whose 2.3 million residents are densely packed into a tiny, coastal strip, would likely result in a surge of casualties for fighters on both sides.

Hamas on Wednesday launched a fresh barrage of rockets into Israel aimed at the southern town of Ashkelon.

The U.N. says 260,000 people have fled their homes in Gaza, most crowding into U.N. schools.

Others sought the shrinking number of safe neighborhoods in the strip of land only 40 kilometers (25 miles) long, wedged among Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

After nightfall, Palestinians were plunged into pitch blackness in large parts of Gaza City and elsewhere after the territory’s only power station ran out of fuel and shut down. Only a few lights from private generators still glowed.

Israel on Monday halted the entry of food, water, fuel and medicine into the territory. The sole remaining crossing from Egypt was shut down Tuesday after airstrikes hit nearby.

The Gaza Strip’s biggest hospital, Al-Shifa, has only enough fuel to keep power on for three days, said Matthias Kannes, a Gaza-based official for Doctors Without Borders. The group said the two hospitals it runs in Gaza were running out of surgical equipment, antibiotics, fuel and other supplies.

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a reconstructive surgeon at al-Shifa, said he had 50 patients waiting to go to the operating room.

“We’re already beyond the capacity of the system to cope,” he said. The health system “has the rest of the week before it collapses, not just because of the diesel. All supplies are running short.”

The Palestinian Red Crescent said other hospitals’ generators will run out in five days.

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