STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. A senior member of Hamas has said the Palestinian militant group was surprised by America’s reaction to recent violence in Gaza, suggesting the US could enter the fight after it sent thousands of troops and a pair of aircraft carriers to the region.
In an interview with the Financial Times published on Friday, Ali Barakeh, a member of Hamas’ political leadership based in Lebanon, said the group “didn’t expect this much of a response” from the US.
“An Israeli response? Yes, we expected that,” he said. “But what we’re seeing now is the entrance of the US into the battle, and this we didn’t count on.”
Washington has made major shows of force in the Middle East since Hamas’ deadly October 7 attack on Israel, deploying two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Mediterranean, as well as an amphibious assault ship carrying 2,000 sailors and marines. US officials have said the moves were meant to deter outside actors from taking part in the Gaza war.
The Pentagon said it carried out airstrikes on two facilities in eastern Syria alleged to be used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and “affiliated” groups, claiming the operation was in “self-defense” following a string of rocket attacks on US troops. While the mission highlighted escalating US military action in the region, officials stressed that it was “separate and distinct” from the hostilities with Hamas.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have pounded Gaza with airstrikes in response to Hamas’ attack earlier this month, which claimed around 1,400 lives, according to Israeli officials. More than 7,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in weeks of IDF bombing since, with Israel now preparing a significant ground operation intended to eliminate Hamas.
Barakeh went on to say the militant group had at least 40,000 fighters in its ranks, and that most were based in extensive tunnel networks built under Gaza. “We have been prepared for a ground offensive,” he added, explaining that the underground complex is stocked with months of supplies.
Both sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict could be committing war crimes, Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), has warned.
During a press conference in Geneva on Friday, Shamdasani was asked if the Israeli bombing of Gaza in response to the surprise attack by Hamas on October 7 could be characterized as “genocide.”
The spokesperson avoided a direct answer, but said her agency was “concerned that war crimes are being committed. We are concerned about the collective punishment of Gazans in response to the atrocious attacks by Hamas, which also amounted to war crimes.”
She also stressed that the UN “at this point can’t go further than that,” adding that it was up to an independent court of law to determine whether war crimes have taken place.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been bombarding Gaza relentlessly since Hamas fighters infiltrated Israel three weeks ago, killing around 1,400 people and taking more than 230 others hostage.
According to the Health Ministry in the Palestinian enclave, Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have already led to the death of 7,028 people, including 2,913 children. The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), Philippe Lazzarini, told reporters in Jerusalem on Friday that the ministry’s figures have always been viewed as “credible.”
Shamdasani also read out a statement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, in which he called on all sides of the conflict “to heed the calls for peace.”
The statement included condemnation of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and its blockade of the enclave, as well as criticism of Israel’s calls for Palestinians to evacuate the targeted areas.
“Nowhere is safe in Gaza. Compelling people to evacuate in these circumstances… and while under a complete siege raises serious concerns over forcible transfer, which is a war crime,” the statement read.
The Israeli bombardment “in densely populated areas has caused extensive damage to civilian infrastructure and loss of civilian lives that, by all appearances, is difficult to reconcile with international humanitarian law,” it added.
Israeli officials have denied accusations of unlawful conduct in Gaza, while accusing Hamas fighters of hiding behind civilians. Earlier this week, Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told German tabloid Bild that “we are humane people. We are the most moral military in the world.” Israel does not want to harm the Palestinians, he claimed, saying the only goal is to “overwhelm” Hamas.
The Health Ministry in Gaza has published the names of 6,747 people who it says have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory strikes on the Palestinian enclave since October 7.
The 210-page report, which came out on Thursday, includes the name, age, gender, and ID number of each of the victims, including those of 2,665 children.
The ministry said the list is not complete as almost 300 bodies remain unidentified, many people are missing, and some were buried without being admitted to the hospital.
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he has “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using” regarding the death toll in Gaza.
Biden went on to say that he has “no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed,” adding that he is “sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war.”
Following the release of the names, Gaza Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qudra called the Biden administration “devoid of human standards, morals and basic human rights values” for “shamelessly” questioning the validity of the death toll.
“We decided to… announce, with details and names, and in front of the entire world, the truth about the genocidal war committed by the Israeli occupation against our people,” he said, adding that the report was published to “let the world know that behind every number is the story of a person whose name and identity are known. Our people are not nobodies who can be ignored.”
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been relentlessly bombarding Gaza for almost three weeks since the October 7 surprise attack on Israel by Hamas, which claimed 1,400 lives. Residential buildings and mosques have been destroyed in the strikes on the Palestinian enclave, and the Israeli authorities have accused Hamas fighters of hiding behind civilians. The IDF announced plans for a ground invasion of Gaza, but the operation is currently delayed.
The Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, Omar Shakir, told Al Jazeera on Thursday that his organization’s three decades of experience working in the occupied Palestinian territories has shown the numbers provided by the Gaza Health Ministry to be “generally reliable.” The ministry bases its figures on data it receives from hospitals and morgues, Shakir said.