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

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JERUSALEM -

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined with a top political rival on 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 ruled by Hamas, 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.

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 defence minister; and current Defence 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 UN said late Wednesday the number of people displaced by the airstrikes had soared 30 percent within 24 hours, to 339,000, two-thirds of them crowding into U.N. schools. Others sought shelter in the shrinking number of safe neighbourhoods 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. Residential buildings, unable to store as much diesel, likely will go dark sooner.

Egypt and international groups have been calling for humanitarian corridors into Gaza. Convoys stood loaded with fuel and food Wednesday on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, but were unable to enter Gaza, an Egyptian security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

In Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp, rescue workers and civilians carried men covered with blood and soot toward ambulances after strikes toppled buildings. Streets were left blanketed with metal, chunks of concrete and thick dust.

Medical teams and rescuers struggled to enter other areas where roads were too damaged, including Gaza City's al-Karama district, where a "large number" were killed or wounded, according to the Hamas-run Interior Ministry. Strikes have killed at least four Red Crescent paramedics, the organization said.

The risk of the war spreading was evident Wednesday after the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military position and claimed to have killed and wounded troops.

The Israeli military confirmed the attack but did not comment on possible casualties. The Israeli army shelled the area in southern Lebanon where the attack was launched.

U.S. President Joe Biden called Saturday's Hamas attack "the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust."

"This attack was a campaign of pure cruelty, not just hate, but pure cruelty against the Jewish people," Biden said at a meeting with Jewish community leaders at the White House.

On Tuesday, he warned other countries and armed groups against entering the war. The U.S. is already rushing munitions and military equipment to Israel and has deployed a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean as deterrence.

In the West Bank, Israeli settlers attacked a village south of Nablus, opening fire on Palestinians and killing three, the territory's health ministry said. More than two dozen Palestinians have died in fighting in the West Bank since the weekend.

Israel has mobilized 360,000 reservists, massed additional forces near Gaza and evacuated tens of thousands of residents from nearby communities.

Toppling Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, would likely require reoccupying Gaza, at least temporarily. Even then, Hamas has a long history of operating as an underground insurgency in areas controlled by Israel.

Hamas said it launched its attack Saturday because Palestinians' suffering had become intolerable under unending Israeli military occupation and increasing settlements in the West Bank and a 16-year-long blockade in Gaza.

In the kibbutz of Be'eri near Gaza, Israeli troops were still removing the bodies of dead Hamas militants who stormed the community and killed more than 100 residents, then battled soldiers for nearly three days.

Major General Itai Veruv told visiting journalists that the military found evidence of Hamas militants cutting throats of bound captives, lining up children and killing them and packing 15 teenage girls in a room before throwing a grenade inside.

Shock, grief and demands for vengeance against Hamas are running high in Israel.

In a new tactic, Israel is warning civilians to evacuate whole Gaza neighbourhoods, rather than just individual buildings, then leveling large swaths in waves of airstrikes.

Israel's tone has changed as well. In past conflicts, its military insisted on the precision of strikes in Gaza, trying to ward off criticism over civilian deaths. This time, military briefings emphasize the destruction being wreaked.

Even with the evacuation warnings, Palestinians say some are unable to escape or have nowhere to go, and that entire families have been crushed under rubble.

Other times, strikes come with no notice, survivors say.

"There was no warning or anything," said Hashem Abu Manea, 58, who lost his 15-year-old daughter, Joanna, when a strike late Tuesday leveled his home in Gaza City.

Israeli airstrikes late Tuesday struck the family house of Mohammed Deif, the shadowy leader of Hamas' military wing, killing his father, brother and at least two other relatives in the southern town of Khan Younis, Hamas official Bassem Naim told The Associated Press. Deif has never been seen in public, and his whereabouts are unknown.

The Israeli military said more than 1,200 people, including 189 soldiers, have been killed in Israel, a staggering toll unseen since the 1973 war with Egypt and Syria that lasted weeks. In Gaza, 1,100 people have been killed, according to authorities there.

Israel says roughly 1,500 Hamas militants were killed inside Israel, and that hundreds of the dead inside Gaza are Hamas members.

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Shurafa reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Amy Teibel and Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem, Sam McNeil in Be'eri, Israel, Jack Jeffrey and Samy Magdy in Cairo and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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