One critic declared that "a horrific slaughter is happening in plain sight, while the world watches and the U.S. shamelessly aids and abets it!"
Clearly undeterred by the mounting civilian death toll and global calls for a cease-fire three weeks into Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Friday that "tonight we are starting payback."
Asked by MSNBC's Katy Tur what Israeli forces are targeting and why the operation is intensifying, Netanyahu adviser Mark Regev said: "You can be sure that if you're in a Hamas bunker somewhere, if you're in a Hamas tunnel, if you're in a Hamas stronghold, then we're gonna come and find you and we're gonna eliminate that target. Hamas will pay for its crimes against humanity. Hamas will pay for slaughtering our people."
"This... ISIS-taught group that the German chancellor, when he was visiting Israel last week, he said they acted like Nazis, we are bringing justice to this terrible, despicable, disgusting terrorist group, and they will pay for their crimes," he continued. "And once again, not just Israel will be better off afterwards but the people of Gaza will be better off without them as well."
Regev's interview came after Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari said earlier Friday that in addition to ramping up its airstrikes, the Israeli military is "expanding ground operations" in Gaza ahead of an expected full-scale invasion as part of the war launched in response to a Hamas-led attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, with around 200 others taken hostage.
Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning local elections, the strip's 2.3 million residents—half of them children—have endured an Israeli blockade and four previous military offensives. Legal scholars have said the ongoing Israeli assault enabled by billions of dollars in U.S. military support could amount to genocide.
As of Friday, the Israeli war has killed more than 7,300 Palestinians, including over 3,000 children, and wounded about 19,000 others, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. It has also damaged or destroyed around half of the strip's homes, displaced a majority of the population, and as of Friday cut off internet and communication services.
While some powerful figures have cast doubt on that death toll—including U.S. President Joe Biden, who recently affirmed his "rock-solid and unwavering" support for Israel—the ministry has released a document detailing the names, ages, genders, and civil identification numbers of most people killed, and its figures are generally considered reliable by human rights groups, international and Israeli mainstream media, United Nations agencies, and the U.S. State Department.
During Regev's MSNBC appearance, Tur asked: "The civilians who are in Gaza, did they get a heads up on what was gonna be happening tonight? Are you confident that civilians are not being killed right now with these explosions?"
In response, Regev said: "So as you know, for days now we have been asking people to move to the south, and they have done so in the hundreds of thousands, and they're safer in the south than they are in the combat zone. But even tonight, as we move in to target Hamas more aggressively, we make the clear distinction between Hamas targets and the civilian population, and we are still making a maximum effort in a difficult combat situation to be as surgical as is humanly possible. We want to destroy Hamas. We don't target the civilian population of the Gaza Strip."
After ordering about 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to move south earlier this month, Israeli forces bombed a fleeing civilian convoy, killing 70 people, mostly women and children, according to Iyad Al-Buzm, a spokesperson for the strip's Interior Ministry.
"They're taking revenge by killing our children," said Wael Al-Dahdouh, the chief of Al Jazeera's Gaza bureau, after he learned while reporting on-air Wednesday that his wife, son, daughter, and grandson were killed in an Israeli airstrike. "What happened is clear, this is a series of targeted attacks on children, women, and civilians."
Regev told Tur that "we are beefing up the pressure but I'm not going to comment on an ongoing operation—how long it will last for, when it will finish—that would be irresponsible from my point of view."
"But Hamas will feel our wrath tonight and I think all the international community who saw the crimes, the atrocities that Hamas is responsible for, should be supporting Israel," he added. "We are going to destroy Hamas and in doing so I think we're eradicating a despicable enemy of all humanity."
As Common Dreams reported earlier Friday, two separate proposals from Israeli officials to permanently expel Palestinians from Gaza have stoked fears of ethnic cleansing, while Jewish settlers in the illegally occupied West Bank are pledging to kill Palestinians there if they don't flee to Jordan.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—among the few members of Congress calling for a cease-fire—stressed Friday: "It can't be underscored enough: A ground invasion into the Gaza Strip would have disastrous consequences and lead to loss of life of catastrophic proportions. It would risk pulling the U.S. into a rapidly escalating broader regional conflict. We should fully oppose it."
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the U.S. group Justice Democrats, similarly said in a statement Friday that "President Biden must immediately demand a cease-fire and put a stop to Israel's ground invasion if they care at all about protecting the lives of innocent Palestinians or Israeli hostages."
"A ground invasion would ensure thousands more civilian casualties, bring us closer to an all-out regional conflict in the Middle East, and thrust the United States into another endless war," Rojas warned. "As Israel has cut off phone and internet service in Gaza, the United States cannot allow Benjamin Netanyahu to commit the final steps in his ethnic cleansing campaign under the cover of darkness—the world is still watching."