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Israel pounds Gaza as Iran attack threat puts region on edge

GAZA STRIP (AFP) – Residents reported heavy Israeli fire in central Gaza on Friday, with regional tensions soaring after Iran threatened reprisals over a strike in Syria this month that killed two Iranian generals.

As talks for a truce and hostage release dragged on, fears that Iran could soon launch an attack on Israel prompted the United States (US) to announce it was sending reinforcements to the Middle East as a deterrent.

US President Joe Biden said he expected Iran to attempt to strike Israel soon but warned it against attacking the US ally in retaliation for the April 1 strike on its Damascus consulate.

Authorities in Hamas-ruled Gaza reported dozens of new air strikes in the central region where most Israeli troops have regrouped in recent days. The Hamas media office said 25 people were taken to hospital in Deir al-Balah “as a result of an air strike on a house”.

Mohammed al-Rayes, 61, told AFP that he fled Israeli “air strikes and artillery shelling” in Nuseirat overnight. “It was all fire and destruction, with so many martyrs lying in the street,” he said.

Palestinians find their home city in ruins in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. PHOTO: AP

Another resident, Laila Nasser, 40, reported “shells and missiles” throughout the night.

“They will do to Nuseirat what they did to Khan Yunis,” said Nasser, vowing to flee to the southernmost city of Rafah, like most of Gaza’s population.

The war began with Hamas’ unprecedented October 7 attack against Israel. Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,634 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s Health Ministry.

The latest bombardments in Gaza came after Israel said it had strengthened air defences and paused leave for combat units, following a deadly April 1 air strike that destroyed Iran’s consulate building in Damascus.

Iran blamed Israel, which has stepped up strikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria since the Gaza war began.

The White House said on Friday that the threat from Iran remained “real”. Asked what his message was to Iran on striking Israel, Biden said: “Don’t”.

“We are devoted to the defence of Israel, we will support Israel, we will help defend Israel and Iran will not succeed,” he said.

A defence official said the Pentagon was “moving additional assets to the region to bolster regional deterrence efforts and increase force protection for US forces.”

Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Tehran, also asked its allies to use their influence with Iran to urge restraint, the State Department said.

After calls with his Australian, British and German counterparts on Thursday, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said: “Iran does not seek to expand the scope of the war.”

But he added that it felt it had no choice but to respond to the deadly attack on its diplomatic mission after the United Nations (UN) Security Council failed to take action.

Washington has ramped up pressure on Netanyahu to increase aid flows to Gaza in the face of UN warnings of imminent famine.

The Israeli army said that an undisclosed number of aid trucks had been allowed to enter Gaza on Thursday through a newly opened border crossing into the north of the territory.

Despite repeated AFP requests for comment, Israeli authorities did not disclose the exact location of the new crossing.

Gallant had trumpeted the new crossing on Wednesday, promising to “flood Gaza with aid”, but on Thursday the UN Security Council said “more should be done”.