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The US is sending a second aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean in a bid to ease tensions in the region as Israel prepares a ground offensive against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and many of its Palestinian citizens flee southward.
Washington announced earlier this week 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”.
The deployment is the latest evidence of global powers’ fears that the Israel-Hamas conflict could turn into a broader regional conflagration.
It comes as Israel accused Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, of preventing the southward flight of civilian convoys ahead of its expected assault into the densely populated north of the enclave.
Israel’s military said on Sunday that it plans to conduct “enhanced operations” against the militant group in Gaza.
“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.
According to video footage verified by the Financial Times, a convoy of vehicles heading towards southern Gaza on Salah-al-Din street, the enclave’s main north-south road, was struck on Friday by at least two explosions, killing at least a dozen people, including children, leading to accusations by Palestinians that Israel had targeted civilians.
However, Conricus said on Sunday that the IDF “did not target purposely in that area”. “There was no targeting of vehicles, there was no targeting of civilians specifically because we want — we don’t target civilians anyhow — but specifically because we wanted people to go south, so it makes no sense for the IDF to have done it,” he said.
Conricus said the bombardment of the convoy “may have been some kind of freak accident, which I doubt”. The FT has not independently verified the Israeli military spokesman’s claims.
On Saturday night militant groups fired rockets from Gaza into Tel Aviv and southern Israel, with no casualties reported. Israel bombarded what it said were military targets in Gaza overnight.
Israel’s worst war in years sparked a round of weekend diplomacy as the international community sought to apply pressure on Tel Aviv, Hamas and other actors to exercise restraint.
On Saturday US President Joe Biden spoke to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the self-ruling entity that controls parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in which he condemned Hamas’s “brutal attack on Israel” and briefed him on “efforts to bring urgently needed humanitarian assistance to Palestinian people”.
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 also 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. At least 2,215 people have been killed in Gaza, including many women and children. Israel said on Saturday that it had identified 120 hostages who were abducted by Palestinian gunmen during the incursion.
Additional reporting by Samer al-Atrush in Dubai