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Israel assault has turned Gaza into 'humanitarian hellscape': UN

UN chief Antonio Guterres said Israel's offensive had created a "humanitarian hellscape" for civilians in Gaza
— Jerusalem (AFP)

More than six months of Israel's military offensive in Gaza has turned the Palestinian territory into a "humanitarian hellscape", UN chief Antonio Guterres said Thursday, also warning that one wrong move could see the Middle East devolve into a wider war.

World powers have been nervously watching for Israel's vowed response to an unprecedented Iranian assault over the weekend, with fears that tit-for-tat attacks could push the region towards broader conflict.

"The Middle East is on a precipice," Guterres said.

"One miscalculation, one miscommunication, one mistake, could lead to the unthinkable -- a full-scale regional conflict that would be devastating for all involved."

His speech came hours before the United States sank a long-shot Palestinian bid for full United Nations membership, vetoing a Security Council vote.

Hamas condemned the move, while the Palestinian Authority said it showed "the contradictions of American policy", which claims to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but at the same time "prevents the implementation of this solution".

While the world's attention has been focused on the possible ramifications of the Iran attack, Israel has continued carrying out its offensive on besieged Gaza.

While the world's attention has been focused on the Iran tensions, Israel has continued carrying out deadly strikes on Gaza

The Israeli army said it had bombed dozens of targets in the territory on Thursday, as Qatar said efforts to broker a truce had stalled.

The UN chief again called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and urged Israel to do more to allow aid into the hunger-stalked territory.

"In Gaza, six and a half months of Israeli military operations have created a humanitarian hellscape," Guterres said.

A Palestinian woman mourns the death of a loved one at Al-Najjar hospital following overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 18, 2024

- Western sanctions -

Over the weekend, Iran carried out its first attack to directly target its regional foe. Israel, backed by its allies, intercepted most of the 300 missiles and drones and suffered no deaths.

The attack was retaliation for an April 1 air strike, widely blamed on Israel, which levelled Iran's consular annexe in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards, two of them generals.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to destroy Hamas over its October 7 attack that started the Gaza war, has stressed that Israel "reserves the right to protect itself" against Iran.

An Iranian military truck carries a Sayad 4-B missile past a portrait of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a military parade on April 17, 2024

The United States, Israel's main ally and military supplier, has made clear it will not join a reprisal attack on Iran, and unveiled sanctions against people and entities involved in producing the drones deployed in the Iranian assault.

"We are holding Iran accountable," US President Joe Biden said, announcing the measures after the European Union said it would also sanction Iran's drone programme.

Israel has yet to reveal how or when it will carry out its promised retaliation against Iran.

But US broadcaster ABC News, citing three unnamed Israeli sources, reported that Israel had "prepared for and then aborted retaliatory strikes against Iran on at least two nights this past week".

Among the range of possible responses considered by Israel was an attack on Iranian proxies in the region or a cyberattack, the sources told ABC.

Iran's allies and proxies in the Middle East

On Thursday, a high-ranking Iranian general warned Israel against attacking nuclear sites.

If this did happen, then "the nuclear facilities of the regime will be targeted and operated upon with advanced weaponry", said Ahmad Haghtalab, the head of Iran's Nuclear Protection and Security Corps.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned that Tehran would make Israel "regret" any attack on the Islamic republic.

However, Tehran has also sought to calm tensions through indirect diplomatic channels with its other major adversary, the United States.

Amir-Abdollahian said Iran had "tried to tell the United States clearly" that it is "not looking for the expansion of tension in the region".

- Focus turns from Gaza -

Israel has faced growing global opposition to the relentless war that has reduced much of Gaza to rubble, while its 2.4 million people have suffered under an Israeli siege that has blocked most water, food, medicines and other vital supplies.

An expert warned that Iran's attack on Israel "is succeeding in taking the focus, particularly the media spotlight, off of the Gaza famine," an expert said

Iran's attack on Israel "is succeeding in taking the focus, particularly the media spotlight, off of the Gaza famine and the Gaza war," Roxane Farmanfarmaian, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at Cambridge University, told AFP.

The war started after Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also took about 250 hostages. Israel estimates 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 who are presumed dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,970 people in Gaza, mostly women and children. according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Gaza's civil defence said Thursday it had recovered 11 more bodies in the southern city of Khan Yunis during the night.

Food crisis in the Gaza Strip

Also bombed was the far-southern city of Rafah, where Israel told Palestinians in northern Gaza to move to earlier in the war -- but has since vowed to send its ground troops.

An overnight Israeli strike killed at least 10 people where a displaced family was sheltering in Rafah, relatives and neighbours told AFP as they searched for victims.

"We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet," said neighbour Abdeljabbar al-Arja.

"This is horrifying, it's not normal," he said. "The entire world is complicit."

The Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, said it fired "a salvo of rockets" towards the Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Sderot, just over the Gaza border.

The Israeli army said sirens were heard Thursday evening in areas next to Gaza.